Firefighters and Asbestos Exposure Risks
Firefighters protect the community by putting out dangerous blazes, but they can also be exposed unknowingly to toxic environmental hazards like asbestos.
Asbestos is a highly durable and fiber-like mineral that, when inhaled or ingested, can lead to mesothelioma and other deadly illnesses.
Firefighters should learn how to reduce the risks of asbestos exposure while they serve and what to do if they develop an asbestos-related disease.
How Firefighters Were Exposed to Asbestos
Asbestos was used for decades to make construction materials and protect workers from fires. When older buildings made with asbestos are damaged by fire, they can release large amounts of asbestos fibers and put firefighters at risk of exposure.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, the construction industry used countless asbestos-containing products to build structures across the country.
Asbestos was used in:
- Adhesives and sealants
- Drywall board
- Electric wiring
- Exterior cement-board siding
- Fireproofing materials
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Insulation (wall, ceiling, etc.)
- Masonry cement powder
- Roofing shingles
- Sound deadening applications
When buildings with these products catch on fire, microscopic asbestos fibers can be released into the air. Once airborne, firefighters may inhale or swallow the fibers without notice and develop mesothelioma later in life.
Thousands of older structures built before the 1980s still contain asbestos construction products today.
Firefighters can also be exposed to asbestos in fire stations. For example, a 2019 lawsuit claimed that the city of San Diego relocated firefighters to buildings laced with asbestos and did not address the problem for decades.
Fire Cleanup Sites
Asbestos may continue to pose a threat even after a fire has been put out.
After a fire, asbestos can be found in:
- Air and smoke: Asbestos particles can be picked up by breezes or smoke and then inhaled by firefighters.
- Ash: Asbestos fibers may wind up in the smoldering ash or debris of a fire. Moving this ash can release microscopic fibers into the air.
- Damaged structures: After firefighters have put out a fire, any asbestos-based products in the buildings can be disturbed if precautions are not taken during the cleanup process.
Firefighter Asbestos Suits & Gear
Starting in the 1930s, firefighters wore protective clothing such as suits, gloves, boots, and helmets that contained asbestos.
Since asbestos is fireproof, it was thought to be perfect for this protective gear. Firefighters and their employers didn’t know asbestos was dangerous since manufacturers of asbestos-based products hid the health risks for decades.
Modern-day firefighting gear is not made with asbestos due to these dangers.
Between the 1930s and 1980s, asbestos was often used in fire trucks and other vehicles to reduce brake friction and prevent overheating.
Asbestos was used in fire engine:
- Water hoses
These parts could wear down over time and release asbestos fibers into the air, putting firefighters and others nearby at risk of exposure.
Firefighters and Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
The risks of asbestos exposure don’t stop at the fire scene. Firefighters may transport microscopic fibers back to the fire station on their clothes, vehicles, and equipment, putting other firefighters at risk of secondhand exposure.
Family members can also suffer from secondhand exposure if a firefighter comes home without showering or properly cleaning their gear.