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Firefighters put their health on the line to protect others, frequently facing the risk of asbestos exposure. Older buildings can release large amounts of asbestos into the air when damaged by fire. Not only that, but asbestos was historically used in the very equipment designed to keep firefighters safe in the line of duty.

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Firefighters and Asbestos Exposure

Firefighting is one of the world’s riskiest occupations. Firefighters risk their health daily to control all kinds of combustible situations. They have no idea what they’ll encounter when they start their shifts.

Firefighters might be called to a residential fire, a commercial complex or an industrial site. Each location has individual hazards, but the most common material presenting long-term health risks to firefighters is asbestos.

Firefighters are able to stop many fires before they cause extensive damage, but some extremely dangerous fires lead to total building collapse. Fires of any severity level can release asbestos into the atmosphere, exposing firefighters to the toxic fibers.

How Firefighters Were Exposed to Asbestos

Firefighters are exposed to every material used to construct the buildings they extinguish. Many older structures built before the 1980s contain a wide range of asbestos-based construction products.

Fires and Asbestos Exposure
Installed asbestos building products are usually stable when left untouched. However, fire damages these materials, allowing asbestos to become airborne in smoke and debris.

Unless using a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA), every firefighter exposed to asbestos would inhale these microscopic particles.

Firefighters today wear protective gear to keep them safe from asbestos and other toxic materials on the job. But in the past, the dangers of asbestos exposure were not widely known.

Firefighters risked inhaling asbestos when they responded to fires without adequate protective equipment.

Asbestos exposure didn’t stop at the fire scene. Firefighters contaminated with asbestos would transport the fibers back to the fire hall on their clothes, vehicles, and equipment.

Since no one knew that asbestos was dangerous, no efforts were taken to prevent secondary exposure. Every firefighter support worker was exposed to the same asbestos fibers.

Additionally, asbestos was used in many fire hall building products, fire truck parts, and protective equipment. Earlier firefighters wore fire- and heat-retardant clothing that contained asbestos. Asbestos was even used in fire engine brakes, clutches, gaskets, and water hoses.

Asbestos Used in Older Buildings

Asbestos was used in nearly every construction project before the 1980s. Because the material is so durable, lightweight and heat-resistant, it was used in a wide variety of insulating and fireproofing projects.

Asbestos could be found in:

  • Wall and ceiling insulation
  • Drywall board
  • Flooring underlay and tiles
  • Roofing shingles
  • Exterior cement-board siding
  • Masonry cement powder
  • Electrical wiring insulation
  • Paint, adhesives, and sealants
  • Fireproofing materials
  • Sound deadening applications

Many older buildings standing today have asbestos-containing products sealed inside them.

Firefighter Careers

Firefighters spend their careers in dangerous situations on the front line, spanning 30-40 years for some seasoned veterans. Many firefighters attend hundreds of fire scenes throughout their careers.

Some fires are quickly extinguished and pose little harm. Others are multi-alarm blazes that can take days to put out.

Every jurisdiction in America employs firefighters. Small towns usually have a volunteer service with only a few full-time firefighters while big cities retain fire platoons on rotating shifts.

Firefighters also serve at airports and on waterfronts. Further, some veterans served as firefighters during their time in the military.

Most firefighters start their careers operating hoses and climbing ladders. They earn experience facing flames and knocking back burning buildings. Some might do this for only a few years before branching out into specialist roles or being promoted within their department.

Not every fire department member is a front-line responder.

Several back-up positions assist frontline fire suppression teams, such as:

  • Administrators and senior staff
  • Arson investigators
  • Cleanup and demolition crews
  • Clerical support in fire stations
  • Dangerous hazard inspectors
  • Hose and equipment technicians
  • Mechanics and maintenance workers
  • Training instructors and examiners

Many professionals and volunteers act in support roles, visiting fire scenes after the event or participating in preparedness measures. These individuals also come into contact with hazardous materials.

Firefighter Health Risks

Asbestos fibers are extremely dangerous to anyone exposed to the airborne particles. Inhaled fibers can embed themselves into the lung or abdominal linings (the pleura and the pericardium). These fibers can’t be expelled once lodged in the tissues.

Asbestos fibers lodged within the human body can eventually trigger a deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma. Often, inhaled or ingested asbestos does not produce symptoms for decades.

Mesothelioma usually develops 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure, but it sometimes affects teenagers and even children.

Did You Know?

Firefighters and Mesothelioma

Firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population.

Most people exposed to asbestos are unaware of their health risks. A firefighter’s risk of developing mesothelioma depends on their level of asbestos exposure as well as the length of time they spent in asbestos-contaminated environments.

Help for Mesothelioma Victims

Firefighters are in a high-risk group for developing mesothelioma.

If you worked as a firefighter and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma caused by job-related asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for compensation. Monetary rewards can cover your medical expenses and lost income.

You may also be awarded punitive damages from negligent producers of asbestos products. Families of mesothelioma victims can also file claims on behalf of sick loved ones or pursue wrongful death lawsuits if the victims have passed away.

For more information on seeking justice for firefighters exposed to asbestos, contact our Justice Support Team today.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

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  1. Daniels, R. D., Kubale, T. L., Yiin, J. H., Dahm, M. M., Hales, T. R., Baris, D., … Pinkerton, L. E. (2013). Mortality and cancer incidence in a pooled cohort of US firefighters from San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia (1950–2009). Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 71(6), 388–397. Retrieved from
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