Firefighters and Mesothelioma
The nation’s firefighters risk their health and lives daily to serve the public. You may read a press account when one is seriously injured or killed fighting a fire. You probably won’t read about a firefighter being killed by lung cancer or mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure while on duty.
Firefighters put themselves in harm’s way to save property and lives. They’re endangered by asbestos because when homes and businesses go up in flames, asbestos fibers in them are released into the smoke and hot air. All those near the fire may be breathing them in, and firefighters are the closest to the asbestos source.
Inhaled asbestos fibers can cause pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of a membrane lining the lungs and chest cavity, and lung cancer. Those injured by asbestos may have legal rights to compensation for their suffering.
What Do Firefighters Do?
There’s much more to working as a firefighter than combatting fires. They respond to vehicle crashes, industrial accidents, weather-related disasters, and chemical spills. Some firefighters act as paramedics in their communities. There is constant training, and equipment must be maintained and repaired. About a third of the nation’s firefighters are paid, with two-thirds risking their health and lives as volunteers.
How are Firefighters Exposed to Asbestos?
When firefighters respond to a fire, they breathe in the smoke, vapors, and particles of whatever’s burning. That could be wood ash, chemicals from burning plastics, and smoke from burning oil or gasoline. Also in the mix may be asbestos fibers.
Up until the early 1980s, many building and industrial products contained asbestos. It’s a strong mineral fiber resistant to heat, fire, chemicals, and electricity which was inexpensive and easy to buy during its peak use. Many of those products remain in older buildings today.
If these buildings burn, asbestos fibers go up with the smoke inhaled by anyone near the fire or downwind. Because they’re fire-resistant, asbestos fibers may survive the fire and remain in the ash and debris of the fire scene. They may be released into the air as firefighters and cleanup crews walk through and clear the wreckage.
Some of the more common asbestos-containing materials include:
- Adhesives and sealants
- Sheetrock or drywall along with joint compound and tape used with it
- Electrical wiring and equipment
- Cement siding
- Fireproofing sprayed on metal beams
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Insulation on steam pipes, turbines, and boilers
- Roof shingles and tiles
- Soundproofing materials
If firefighters respond to a burning home, factory, or office building, they have no idea if asbestos is present or not. The older the structure, the greater the chance it’s there.
How Harmful is Mesothelioma?
Firefighters could breathe in asbestos fibers in the air or swallow those in their mouths. When fibers get into the body the immune system tries to destroy them, but it fails. Cells attempting to dissolve the fibers die and spill enzymes into nearby tissue, injuring nearby cells and causing inflammation.
If there is enough asbestos fibers and scarring in the lungs it can severely limit the person’s ability to breathe. This condition is called asbestosis. The cellular damage can also result in lung cancer.
There are three asbestos-related mesotheliomas, which are types of cancer:
- Pleural: This affects the membrane lining the lungs and chest cavity
- Peritoneal: The membrane covering organs and the abdominal cavity are impacted
- Pericardial: The membrane covering the heart becomes malignant
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common type. It’s currently treatable but not curable. Treatment may alleviate symptoms, improve your quality of life and extend it, but ultimately, it’s not a cure. The American Cancer Society estimates that, depending on how advanced the disease, from 8% to 20% of people with pleural mesothelioma survive five years after diagnosis.
After treatment, one study shows that nearly half of those with peritoneal mesothelioma survived seven or more years since being diagnosed. A study of pericardial mesothelioma patients found that, on average, they lived two months after diagnosis.
What are the Dangers of Asbestos to Firefighters?
Nearly 30,000 firefighters from three large cities had higher rates of several types of cancers, including mesothelioma than the U.S. population. That’s the finding of research published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 2013.
The study results are generally consistent with previous, smaller studies and strengthen the evidence of a connection between firefighting and cancer, especially pleural mesothelioma:
- The rates of cancers of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems were higher in the group studied, suggesting firefighters are more likely to develop them
- The firefighters’ rate of mesothelioma was twice as high as the general U.S. population
- “This was the first study ever to identify an excess of mesothelioma in U.S. firefighters. The researchers said it was likely that the findings were associated with exposure to asbestos, a known cause of mesothelioma.”
The study analyzed the cancers and cancer deaths of firefighters employed from 1950 through 2009 in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
Call Us Today for A Free Consultation
If you or a loved one developed mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease while working as a firefighter or after retirement, Satterley & Kelley attorneys can answer your questions, advise you of your rights to compensation, and discuss what you must do to protect them.