Firefighters and Mesothelioma
Firefighters are unfortunately connected to mesothelioma. They have an increased risk of developing this cancer due to exposure to asbestos. The nature of fighting fires results in spending time in or around older structures that were built with the cancerous mineral.
Written by Jenna Campagna, RN
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Increasing Awareness of Asbestos
Firefighters regularly put themselves in dangerous environments with poor air quality. Firefighters are at risk of inhaling a plethora of dangerous toxins, including asbestos.
Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which is an asbestos cancer that affects around 3,000 Americans each year. Mesothelioma is just one of the asbestos-related diseases.
How Firefighters Are Exposed to Asbestos
The most common form of asbestos exposure for firefighters occurs when asbestos is released into the air from burning or collapsing buildings. There are many building materials used in homes (generally those built before the 1980s) that may contain asbestos. Some of these materials may include:
- Roofing and siding
- Electrical wiring, switches and panels
- Insulation in walls and ceilings
- Joint compounds
- Floor and ceiling tiles
Firefighters may also respond to automobile fires and be in close quarters with asbestos. Some automobile components made with asbestos include:
- Engine gaskets
- Transmission plates
Risk of Mesothelioma for Firefighters
Since asbestos has most commonly been used as a fire retardant, it is natural that firefighters encounter it during their job. Their occupational asbestos exposure increases the risk of mesothelioma.
Data shows the risk of firefighters developing mesothelioma. According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters are twice as likely as the general public to develop mesothelioma.
Secondhand Exposure Risk for Loved Ones
Firefighters are not the only people at risk of mesothelioma due to their profession. Asbestos can stick to clothes and hair, which can put others in danger of exposure.
The loved ones of firefighters are prone to secondhand asbestos exposure. Women comprise around 25% of all mesothelioma cases in the United States, and many of those cases involved secondhand exposure. Numerous studies have found that more than half of female mesothelioma victims came into contact with asbestos through non-occupational methods.
Firefighters and Mesothelioma: 9/11 First Responders
The 9/11 asbestos risk remains a problem for firefighters involved in the Ground Zero rescue efforts. Firefighters were some of the first people on the scene when the World Trade Center terrorist attacks occurred in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
Unfortunately, the North Tower building was built with approximately 400 tons of asbestos — posing a severe exposure risk to 9/11 firefighters, many of whom are expected to have mesothelioma in the coming decades.
The 9/11 rescue efforts required the help of hundreds of firefighters and other emergency and rescue workers. The National Cancer Institute lists firefighters among police officers, paramedics, construction workers and volunteers as most at risk of mesothelioma due to the World Trade Center attacks.
First 9/11 Firefighter Death Occurs in 2019
A 52-year-old first responder from Pennsylvania died of mesothelioma in 2019. He was a firefighter as part of the White Oak Rescue team, which was part of the 9/11 rescue efforts.
He passed away Oct. 29, 2019 after being diagnosed with stage 3 pleural mesothelioma earlier in 2019. He is the first — or one of the first — of what will likely be many 9/11 firefighters and other emergency responders impacted by mesothelioma.
Dr. Raja Flores, the director of thoracic surgical oncology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said he expects a “bell curve” to occur.
9/11 Health and Compensation Act for Firefighters
Many firefighters have union health benefits to protect themselves from occupational hazards, including mesothelioma. The federal government added another mesothelioma compensation option, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
This federal law, which was passed in 2020, covers mesothelioma and 49 other cancers tied to exposure to toxins during 9/11 response efforts. It is named after New York City police detective James Zadroga, who passed away in 2006 from a respiratory condition caused by his heroic Ground Zero rescue efforts.
9/11 Victim Compensation Fund
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act is a cousin of the 2001 September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which initially operated from 2001-2004.
The Victim Compensation Fund allocated billions of dollars in compensation for first responders, firefighters, cleanup workers, New York City residents and others exposed to toxic 9/11 dust. In 2011, it re-emerged as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
Tips for Firefighters to Avoid Mesothelioma
Given the increased risk of asbestos exposure faced by firefighters, it is important for those in this profession to be aware of potential exposure scenarios. The first step firefighters should take to protect themselves and their loved ones from mesothelioma is to educate themselves about asbestos.
Below are some tips for firefighters to stay safe:
- Wash all clothing and equipment on scene to avoid potentially spreading asbestos elsewhere, and to others.
- Always wear a self-contained breathing apparatus to avoid inhaling microscopic asbestos particles.
- When possible, wet the area down first as this prevents asbestos particles from being released into the air.
- Learn as much as possible about what products and buildings may contain asbestos and what the substance looks like.
Asbestos awareness is particularly important for firefighters. Learning as much as possible about asbestos and how to protect against exposure are key to reducing the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. Learn more about the risks of asbestos exposure in our free Mesothelioma Guide.
Show Sources & Author
- NIOSH Study of Firefighters Finds Increased Rates of Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-10-17-13.html. Accessed: 07/02/2020.
- Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet. Accessed: 07/02/2020.
- 9/11 hero’s cancer death linked to ground zero exposure. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved from: https://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2019/11/04/nick-ursta-9-11-hero-dies-of-cancer-Ground-Zero-exposure-versailles/stories/201910300142. Accessed: 11/05/19.
- The Environmental Impacts of the World Trade Center Attacks. National Resources Defense Council. Retrieved from: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wtc.pdf. Accessed: 11/05/19.
- EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes, and Areas for Improvement. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-12/documents/wtc_report_20030821.pdf. Accessed: 11/05/19.
- James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (2010) and Reauthorization Act (2015). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/wtc/laws.html. Accessed: 07/02/2020.
- About the Victim Compensation Fund. Victim Compensation Fund. Retrieved from: https://www.vcf.gov/about. Accessed: 07/02/2020.
- Early assessment of cancer outcomes in New York City firefighters after the 9/11 attacks: an observational cohort study. The Lancelet. Retrieved from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2811%2960989-6/fulltext. Accessed: 07/02/2020.