In addition to the obvious risks that firefighters face in their daily work, they are also subject to a less commonly recognized danger posed by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling and fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs and other body organs.
A 1990 study of 226 New York City firefighters, most of whom had been firefighters for at least twenty years, found that nearly half had chest x-rays which showed abnormalities characteristically caused by asbestos exposure.
Firefighters Susceptible to Asbestos Exposure
In addition to its well-known use as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was also used as a reinforcing or binding agent in plastics and cement. As such, as late as the 1980s, asbestos was used in building materials including plaster, drywall materials, floor tiles, roofing products, wall and ceiling insulation and electric wiring insulation. In addition, asbestos blankets, gloves and aluminized asbestos suits used to be standard equipment for many firefighters.
During a fire, firefighters can be exposed to a broad spectrum of construction materials, and in older buildings, especially those built before the 1980s, many of these materials contain asbestos. The hot air current at a fire can carry asbestos fibers that are released when cold water hits hot asbestos or when structural failure causes asbestos-containing components to break. Also, fire may cause non-friable asbestos materials (materials in which the asbestos fibers are not easily broken apart) to become friable.
When firefighters wear self-contained breathing apparatus they are better protected from fiber inhalation. However, many firefighters often remove their respiratory equipment after the fire is mostly controlled and they are searching through the debris for any remaining embers. This has the potential to expose them to airborne asbestos.
Demolition Activities and Asbestos Exposure
In addition to the asbestos exposure that can occur during activities such as pulling ceilings or pipes down or opening walls to be sure fires are completely extinguished, firefighters face additional risks because the asbestos fibers released during a fire may get on the firefighters' protective clothing. If contaminated clothing is not handled properly, it can pose a risk to anyone who comes in contact with the clothing.
Another risk that firefighters face is when buildings scheduled for demolition are intentionally used (and burned) for training purposes. Although removing all regulated asbestos materials from such buildings before they are burned is now required by regulations of the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, this was not always the case. If such material is missed, the fire can release asbestos fibers into the air.
Asbestos Exposure and the 9/11 Aftermath
Firefighters and recovery workers who responded to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center may have also been exposed or harmed by airborne asbestos fibers. Asbestos was used in the construction of the North Tower when it was built in the early 1970s, and although some of it had been removed from the 1980s onward, hundreds of tons remained and were released during the attack.
Testing of the air around the World Trade Center revealed elevated asbestos levels in the first few days after the attacks before they fell to within federal standards. However, since the form of asbestos found, short chrysotile fibers, is the type often seen in malignant mesothelioma tissue, experts are concerned about the long-term effects. Because firefighters were among the most heavily exposed populations, they may be at greater risk of developing asbestosis, mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos Exposure Prevention Tips for the Modern Firefighter
Below are several important prevention tips that firefighters can use in order to prevent asbestos exposure.
- Continue to wear SCBA while searching for hotspots during overhaul stage
- Wet parts of the building where firefighters are working to minimize asbestos fibers released into the air
- Venting and entry techniques, which often involve opening walls, should always be performed with protective equipment
- Equipment and clothing should be washed at the scene, if possible, to prevent the spread of contaminants beyond the work site
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure can often take up to 30-40 years after initial exposure, so even people who haven't worked as a firefighter in many years may still be at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Firefighters and former firefighters are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.