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Firefighters Asbestos Exposure

It is a well-known fact that firefighters risk their lives every day to protect people. What many don’t know, however, is that firefighters aren’t just at risk from the emergencies that they respond to; they are also at risk of being exposed to asbestos on the job. Asbestos is a carcinogen that is linked to many terminal illnesses, including mesothelioma. Firefighting often involves putting out fires in older buildings that were built using asbestos.

What is Asbestos? What Are its Health Risks?

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals. From the late 1800s until the 1980s, asbestos was used by companies to manufacture thousands of consumer products. It was relied upon mostly for its heat-resistant and corrosion-resistant properties. Asbestos was largely used in the creation of building and construction materials so that houses and commercial properties would be fire-resistant.

Examples of products that often contain asbestos include: 

  • Adhesives and glues 
  • Cables
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Cement
  • Drywall
  • Ductwork
  • Fire doors
  • Furnace and boiler components
  • Insulation
  • Paints
  • Plasters
  • Roof shingles
  • Sheetrock 
  • Siding
  • Vinyl floor tiles

Being exposed to asbestos even one time could result in asbestos particles becoming lodged in a firefighter’s inner tissues. If a firefighter is exposed to asbestos in an older building, for example, he or she could breathe in or ingest the fibers, which then become stuck in the body. The most common location is the mesothelium, or the thin tissue that lines many of the internal organs. Asbestos particles can get stuck for many decades, causing irritation, inflammation and scar tissue that can eventually form cancerous tumors. 

Firefighters Are Often Exposed to Toxic Environmental Hazards

Any building that was constructed prior to the 1980s is likely to contain asbestos. If one of these buildings collapses or catches on fire, firefighters and first responders who are called to the scene are at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers that get released into the air from the disaster. Without the proper respirators, masks, air filters and goggles, firefighters can be exposed to asbestos when responding to the scene of the emergency. 

In addition, older equipment that was developed specifically for firefighters may also contain asbestos. Many fireproofing materials and textiles relied on asbestos, including the gear worn and used by firefighters (e.g., suits, helmets, gloves and boots). Any firefighter who worked while these textiles still contained asbestos may have been exposed. Their spouses and loved ones may have also come into contact with asbestos through secondhand exposure. This is when a firefighter returns home from work with asbestos particles on his or her clothing, skin or hair. 

Fire trucks also historically contained asbestos, as many auto parts use this mineral to reduce brake friction and prevent overheating. Asbestos may be found in a fire engine’s brakes, gaskets, clutches and water hoses. Over time, these auto parts can wear down and release asbestos fibers into the air to be breathed in by the firefighters riding in the truck, or those who are in charge of truck maintenance.

Asbestos and the World Trade Center 

One of the worst disasters in terms of firefighter asbestos exposure was the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. When the twin towers collapsed, they released thousands of tons of asbestos dust into the air from their construction materials, including spray-on asbestos fireproofing that was used in their construction. Firefighters and others who were first to the scene of this disaster may have been exposed to asbestos particles that were released into the air.

How Can a Firefighter Tell if They Have Been Exposed to Asbestos?

Being exposed to asbestos has been linked to a long list of health problems, illnesses and diseases. One example is mesothelioma: a rare and aggressive form of cancer. There are four types of mesothelioma, but the most common is pleural mesothelioma. This type of cancer forms in the pleura, or the tissue that lines the lungs. It can be caused by a firefighter breathing in asbestos on the job. Other illnesses connected to asbestos exposure include lung cancer, other types of cancer and asbestosis.

Asbestos is unique in that it can take many years – 20 to 60, on average – to cause an illness or health problem. This means that many firefighters do not realize they were exposed to asbestos on the job until many years later. Firefighters who responded to the scene of the 9/11 terrorist attack, for example, may still not be diagnosed with mesothelioma for a few more decades. Potential symptoms of asbestos exposure include respiratory problems, shortness of breath, chest pain, lumps under the skin of the chest and a persistent cough.

How Can Firefighters Stay Safe From Asbestos?

Today much more is known about asbestos and the health risks that it poses than ever before. This can allow firefighters and other at-risk workers to protect themselves from exposure to asbestos on the job. Firefighters can reduce their risk of asbestos exposure with the following efforts:

  • Always wear a self-contained breathing apparatus that uses a HEPA filter (high-efficiency particulate air) when extinguishing fires.
  • Place all firefighting gear and equipment that was used on a job into bags after the job has been completed.
  • Take a shower before returning home to prevent secondhand asbestos exposure.
  • Ensure that all debris, ash and damaged building materials in the fire are properly disposed of.

All fire departments are required to equip their workers with personal protective equipment to keep them safe from exposure to asbestos and other toxic environmental hazards on the job. Failing to provide this gear is an example of negligence that could make the employer or city liable (legally responsible) for a firefighter’s related health problems.

What Are a Firefighter’s Rights After Being Exposed to Asbestos?

If a firefighter is diagnosed with mesothelioma or another disease associated with exposure to asbestos, he or she may be eligible for financial compensation. If the firefighter can prove that he or she was exposed to asbestos on the job, the worker may be eligible for a workers’ compensation claim, for example. 

The worker may also be entitled to file an asbestos trust fund claim if the fire department has since gone bankrupt or is out of business. A personal injury lawsuit may be possible if the employer was negligent. Finally, a product liability lawsuit may be available if the illness can be traced back to a specific product that contained asbestos, such as a piece of firefighting equipment. 

For more information about your rights as a firefighter who has been exposed to asbestos, contact the Williams Law Firm, P.C. for a free case consultation with an experienced attorney.

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