Forty-Year Fire Services Veteran Dies of Mesothelioma

Pickering, Ontario—A firefighter who was exposed to asbestos contamination while on the job has died from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

Rex Heath was only 61 at the time of his death on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. He had been diagnosed two years prior with mesothelioma, a cancer which is caused by asbestos exposure in almost all cases. Because Heath had been involved with Pickering Fire Services for 40 years, and because his exposure had almost certainly occurred as he helped to fight fires, first as a volunteer, then as a full-time firefighter, and later as chief fire prevention officer, his death is considered a line-of-duty death.

Heath’s cancer was diagnosed when he went to the hospital with breathing problems, thinking that they were simply due to a pernicious cold. This is typical of mesothelioma, the symptoms of which are nonspecific and can closely resemble the symptoms of other respiratory conditions. Heath was found to have fluid in his lungs; excess pleural fluid is one of the debilitating effects traditionally associated with mesothelioma.

Asbestos poisoning is a hazard for firefighters because the substance was traditionally used in many different building and construction applications. When it is disturbed or damaged—as it would be during the course of battling a blaze—the asbestos particulate can fill the surrounding air. Its microscopic fibers are breathed in by anyone who is not equipped with respirators or other protective gear. Over time, these fibers accumulate in the lungs and their lining, a special membrane that is called the mesothelium and that is particularly vulnerable to being pierced with these sharp fibers. Eventually, they lead to the formation of a tumor, which typically spreads across the mesothelium and is particularly difficult to surgically remove. Additionally, mesothelioma tends to be resistant to both chemotherapy and radiation therapy, the treatments that are usually used to combat other, more common forms of cancer.

Mesothelioma can remain latent in the body for years, or even decades, after the initial exposure to asbestos. Once it is diagnosed, however, it tends to take the patient’s life very quickly. In fact, since fewer than 10 percent of patients live two years or more after diagnosis, Heath is one of the lucky ones.

Heath is survived by his wife, two children, and one grandchild.