Firefighters not only fight some of the toughest fires, but also the high risk of developing mesothelioma due to prolonged asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is a cancer that significantly damages the lining of the lungs, abdomen and heart. A recent study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests that firefighters are twice as likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma as the entire US population. The research also points to asbestos exposure as the primary source of mesothelioma in American firefighters.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral constructed as bundles of fiber. Until the 1990’s, it was popularly known as a wonder mineral in the construction industry due to its resistance to heat and chemicals. It was heavily used in building materials such as drywall and joint compounds, plaster, mud and texture coats, vinyl floor tiles, and ceilings.
Later, with a dramatic increase in awareness regarding diseases linked to its exposure, the use and importation of asbestos fiber was highly regulated in the United States. However, the presence of buildings constructed before the 1980’s poses serious health hazards for firefighters in the United States even today.
Exposure to Asbestos at Work
When firefighters extinguish fires, they are likely to be exposed to asbestos. When materials containing asbestos are burnt to a certain degree, the fiber becomes airborne. Although protective materials will keep firefighters safe from inhaling the hazardous fiber, it is imperative to understand that asbestos products can continue to release fibers even after the debris starts to cool.
In many cases, the heat resistant protective equipment and clothing may contain asbestos. Continuous exposure to these products can also trigger mesothelioma or other asbestos related diseases in firefighters. Fire stations can also prove to be a potential breeding ground for asbestos. Dust from firefighters’ tools after they return from an affected site can accumulate in the fire station.
Necessary Precautions against Occupational Hazards
By adopting simple safety steps, firefighters can reduce the impact of asbestos exposure and the potential risk of developing mesothelioma. Firefighters should ensure that their SCBA – mouthpiece, regulator and high pressure tank- are certified by The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and do not contain asbestos. SCBA protects firefighters from inhaling any hazardous chemicals or fibers at the scene. They should not take it off unless they are out of the affected zone.
A high efficiency vacuum cleaner is an effective way to clean gear and other items that may have been exposed to asbestos. The individual washing the items must wear protective gear and a respirator. Most importantly, secondhand exposure to asbestos can prove to be equally dangerous and result in malignant mesothelioma. Firefighters should thoroughly shower before returning home and leave their equipment and clothes in separate storage at work.
With necessary precautions and the right tools, firefighters can save lives – not just of others but most importantly, their own.
- IARC Monographs Volume 98.Firefighting. Available at http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol98/mono98-7.pdf
- LeMasters, Grace K, et al.,. 2006. Firefighters and the Risks Involved with Asbestos Exposure. JOEM, 48/11, 1189-1201.
- Pukkala, E., et al.,. 2014. Cancer incidence among firefighters: 45 years of follow-up in five Nordic countries. Available at http://xn--bohusrddningstjnstfrbund-vbcj40c.se/download/18.25d7d9c9149a5ddfa00e9d/1416229458099/Occup+Environ+Med-2014-Pukkala-oemed-2013-101803.pdf
- Reiss, C. 2013. NIOSH Publishes Study of Cancer Among Firefighters. Available at http://www.nlc.org/Documents/NLC-RISC/NIOSH%20Study%20Analysis%20FINAL%2011-25-2013%20.pdf