Firefighters risk their lives for public safety, and the hazards they face last long after extinguishing the last embers in a burning building. When construction materials burn, they release highly toxic chemicals and substances. Asbestos is often one of these.
Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates asbestos manufacture and use, it is not banned in this country. Many structures contain the substance in insulation, paint, roofing materials, wallboard and various adhesives and compounds. When the structure catches fire, it releases the particles into the air.
What are common asbestos-related illnesses?
Asbestos exposure leads to an increased risk for several types of cancer. When firefighters inhale asbestos particles, they enter the respiratory tract and sometimes into other body parts. These particles get stuck in soft tissues, leading to scarring and — potentially — cancer.
The most common malignancies linked to asbestos exposure include:
- Lung cancer
- Colon cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Throat cancer
- Mesothelioma cancer
Other non-malignant illnesses are possible, such as asbestosis, pleural (lung) conditions and heart conditions.
What is mesothelioma?
The greatest threat to firefighters is mesothelioma. This cancer is almost entirely due to asbestos exposure and occurs when asbestos particles become lodged in the lining of surrounding organs, especially the lungs, abdomen or heart. The prognosis is not promising for those who get it.
Many don’t become ill until years after exposure. Current firefighters may not experience symptoms until late in their careers or after they retire, especially for mesothelioma, which can take as long as 60 years to develop.