Firefighters remain a high-risk group for exposure to cancer-causing asbestos, despite a dramatic drop in its use recently that made those in the construction and other industries considerably safer.
Asbestos materials were prevalent in building both commercial and residential structures throughout the 20th century, leaving firefighters vulnerable now when working in older buildings.
Exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to a number of serious illnesses, including lung cancer, mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis. Asbestos is among a number of carcinogens that firefighters often face when doing their job.
Firefighters have a significantly higher risk for a number of cancers than those in the general population and most other occupations, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Asbestos is a big reason.
Older buildings, when damaged by fire, release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. Those fibers can travel considerable distance and remain airborne for extended periods of time. When inhaled or ingested, those fibers can be lodged in the lining around the lungs or stomach, and remain there for decades before developing into cancer.
Being vigilant can prevent some of these preventable cancers.
Awareness Campaign Will Help
A cancer awareness campaign aimed at firefighters kicked off in Ohio earlier in 2015. It provides ways to reduce potential exposure.
Most firefighters today wear self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) and modern personal protective equipment (PPE), which are designed to protect them from these types of fibers. The system, though, is not infallible. There is the human element.
Firefighters have been known to remove the gear too early, putting themselves at risk. They may stay on site to break apart ceilings, pipes and walls to look for errant sparks without wearing their gear, even though the asbestos fibers are still in the air.
Even those standing away from the fire, watching from a distance, can be at risk for fiber inhalation without a SCBA in place.
Post-Fire Awareness Is Important
The aftermath of a fire also can cause an unnecessary, delayed risk without the proper training. Contaminated clothing must be handled correctly because asbestos fibers can cling to the textile part of the gear and remain there until disturbed.
Both clothing and equipment must be removed, isolated and cleaned properly. Firefighters also should shower in their firehouse before leaving, making sure no fibers are reaching any family members.
Women are being diagnosed with asbestos diseases in greater numbers than ever before as they move into occupations that once were dominated by men, including jobs as firefighters.
Greater awareness should lead to a reduction in many cancers for men and women, but mesothelioma won’t be eliminated anytime soon. There is a long latency period (20-50 years) between exposure to asbestos and diagnosis. Firefighters who were exposed in the 1970s, well before today’s high-tech safety gear became commonplace, are just now being diagnosed.
Treatment of mesothelioma has progressed considerably in recent years, moving toward a personalized, multipronged approach that includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But still, there is no definitive cure.
After diagnosis, the mesothelioma life expectancy can range from six to 24 months, depending on several factors, including the stage when it was found. An estimated 3,000 Americans are diagnosed annually, and the majority of those are traced to an occupational exposure from long ago.
CDC.gov. (2013, October 9). Workplace Safety & Health Tips. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asbestos/default.html
Tim Povtak has been a content writer for Asbestos.com since 2011. He writes regularly on issues regarding mesothelioma cancer and asbestos exposure.