Firefighting is a well known hazardous occupation. They are modern day heroes who extinguish fires and save lives. But besides being exposed to the obvious immediate hazardous factors such as the fire itself, smoke inhalation of carbon monoxide poison, and collapsing buildings, there is a less obvious factor that may be more dangerous - asbestos exposure.
What is asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that is a known carcinogen. This fiber consists of long, thin fibrous crystals and may be mixed with other substances in order to resist heat, electricity and chemical damage. Due to these characteristics, asbestos was used in many buildings and other structures throughout the 1900s. One estimation is that up to 80 percent of all buildings constructed before 1978 had asbestos within the design.
Why are firefighters at risk
Asbestos was frequently used in older buildings and structures, often as insulation. A firefighters job is to combat fires and often those fires occur in older buildings. Asbestos also has an ability to linger in the air even after a fire has been extinguished. Firefighters also have repeated asbestos exposure. A victim of a fire is at risk of asbestos exposure, but a firefighter may be at risk daily due to the occupation. Over time asbestos exposure may lead to serious health problems including mesothelioma.
What is mesothelioma
Mesothelioma (mez-uh-thee-lee-O-muh) is a type of cancer that can be either malignant or benign. The malignant type of Mesothelioma is the most hazardous form of cancer and may be deadly in most cases. This cancer affects the mesothelium, which protects the heart, stomach, lungs, and other organs by making a special fluid that allows the organs to move.
Asbestos exposure to firefighters
Asbestos becomes exposed as a result of the fire itself or as the structure of the building fails or deteriorates.
In the initial stages of extinguishing a fire the burning asbestos may become damaged to the point where the fibers are easily released into the air. Once exposed into the air, it is easy to breathe it, where it becomes lodged in tiny sacs lining organs, and the victim is not able to breath or cough them out. Most protective equipment that firefighters use will eliminate the exposure risk. Often, in a real emergency, firefighters must surrender their protective gear in order to aid a victim, therefore exposing themselves.
In the secondary stages of extinguishing a fire, some firefighters may get rid of the protective gear because it is uncomfortable. The danger here is that the remaining debris may still contain a high level of asbestos and may release it when overturned.
Less common is within the firehouses themselves. Many fire buildings are older whose infrastructure required a substance resistant to heat. Many of these older buildings have pipes and electrical fixtures that were insulated with asbestos compounds.
Measures to stay protected
There are many measures that firefighters can and do exercise in order to remain protected from asbestos exposure. These include:
Another measure to stay protected is to quit smoking. Cigarette smoking alone may cause lung cancer and asbestos exposure alone may cause lung cancer. Smoking cigarettes could increase your risk of developing lung cancer after having an asbestos exposure. In this occupation it may be wise, especially since asbestos exposure is repeated and often close-up.
Reference: The Asbestos Cancer and Mesothelioma Support Center at Asbestos.Net