Although it is common knowledge that firefighters are putting themselves at risk every day due to fires and emergencies, it is less well known that they are also facing the danger of asbestos exposure as well. The mineral, which occurs naturally, has been widely used since the 1900s in construction projects. It is widely known as a carcinogen which can increase the occurrence of numerous types of cancer. It may also potentially cause respiratory disorders and diseases such as pleural plaques, pleural fibrosis, and asbestosis.

The material was largely used in products used for construction, particularly between 1920 and 1980. The material was often combined with paint as well as cellulose in order to make wallboard and fiberboard. It was also likely to be found in cement which was used in order to form shingles and felt that was used in the felting of roofs as well as in vinyl flooring. Although asbestos was eliminated from the majority of uses in the 1980s, older buildings still contain the material. This puts the firefighters at extreme risk as asbestos is able to become airborne and then be swallowed or inhaled by the victim.

Asbestos and Firefighting

Each time the firefighter is putting out a fire in a building which contains the mineral, asbestos fibers are able to be released. This may occur when the firefighter makes a hole in the ceiling, floor, or wall or if a collapse occurs. Although the majority of firefighters who enter the building wear masks, many who are working to put out the fire from the outside do not. Tests have shown that high amounts of asbestos are still present even when outside the building. Even firehouses may not be completely safe for firefighters as older public buildings may also contain the potentially lethal substance. This is particularly problematic as firefighters may spend hours and even days in the firehouse.

Even the protective gear which is worn by the firefighters may lead to the inhalation of fibers. Asbestos is perhaps the most efficient insulator still in existence and the gloves and coats that are worn may contain asbestos fibers as they are highly fire resistant. Because of these risks, it is important for firefighters to receive regular physicals and screenings in order to identify whether the individual has a disease related to asbestos exposure. Early detection of a disease such as mesothelioma is essential as it increases the options for treatment.