Retired LCDR Carl Jewett
VA-Accredited Claims Agent
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Important Facts About Firefighters and Mesothelioma
- Firefighters develop mesothelioma from burning buildings containing asbestos.
- Secondhand exposure occurs when firefighters bring asbestos into their home after work.
- The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City exposed many to asbestos. The World Trade Center buildings contained it, and the attacks scattered particles throughout Manhattan.
- The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, passed in 2020, compensates New York City firefighters for diseases linked to the terrorist attacks.
Increasing Awareness of Asbestos
Firefighters regularly put themselves in dangerous environments with poor air quality. They 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
Asbestos exposure for firefighters commonly occurs when asbestos is released into the air from burning or collapsing buildings. There are many materials used in homes (generally those built before the 1980s) that contain asbestos. Some of these materials include:
- Roofing and siding
- Electrical wiring, switches and panels
- Insulation in walls and ceilings
- Joint compounds
- Floor and ceiling tiles
Firefighters also respond to automobile fires with asbestos in the area. Automobile components made with asbestos include:
- Engine gaskets
- Transmission plates
Risk of Mesothelioma for Firefighters
Since asbestos was used as a fire retardant, it is natural that firefighters encounter it. Their occupational asbestos exposure increases the risk of mesothelioma.
Data shows the risk of mesothelioma for firefighters. According to 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.
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 involved secondhand exposure. Numerous studies report more than half of female mesothelioma victims were exposed 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 responding to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
The North Tower building was built with approximately 400 tons of asbestos. This caused a severe exposure risk for 9/11 firefighters. Many 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.
The Environmental Protection Agency sampled the dust in the first three weeks after the attacks. Around 25% of the test samples contained unsafe levels of asbestos. Some areas of Manhattan had very high amounts of asbestos.
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 of many 9/11 firefighters and other emergency responders impacted by mesothelioma.
Dr. Raja Flores, the director of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said he expects a “bell curve” to occur with 9/11 first responders and mesothelioma.
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 passed in 2020, covers mesothelioma and 49 other cancers tied to 9/11 response efforts. It is named after New York City police detective James Zadroga, who passed away in 2006. He developed 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 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.
Report: Most 9/11 Firefighters to Have Health Issues
According to a report from the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program, roughly 75% of firefighters who responded to the World Trade Centers attack will have long‑term health issues. This report examined 15,000 firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan. Approximately 11,300 firefighters and emergency medical responders already have a concerning or serious health condition.
A different report in Occupational and Environmental Medicine had similarly grim data. First responders from 9/11 were 15% more likely than other first responders to develop cancer. 9/11 first responders were also younger on average when diagnosed with cancer:
- Age 55 for 9/11 first responders
- Age 59 for general population
Malignant mesothelioma is one of the health issues for these firefighters. Another is lung cancer, particularly from exposure to asbestos. Lung cancer from asbestos kills close to 10,000 people each year in the United States.
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.
- Always wear a self-contained breathing apparatus to avoid inhaling 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.
Sources & Author
- Firefighter Cancer Rates: The Facts from NIOSH Research. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2017/05/10/ff-cancer-facts/#:~:text=NIOSH%20researchers%20found%20that%2C%20when,deaths%20(14%25%20increase). 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.
- Health Impacts on FNDY Rescue/Recovery Workers 20 Years: 2011 to 2021. FDNY World Trade Center Health Program. Retrieved from: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/about/2021-9-11-20th%20anniversary-wtc-health.pdf. Accessed: 09/09/2021.
- Cancer incidence in World Trade Center-exposed and non-exposed male firefighters, as compared with the US adult male population: 2001–2016. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Retrieved from: https://oem.bmj.com/content/early/2021/08/23/oemed-2021-107570. Accessed: 09/13/2021.
- 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.