Firefighters

Proper Respiratory Equipment Can Limit Risk of Asbestos Diseases

Firefighting continues to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. Each year, about 105 firefighters die on the job, and many more are seriously injured (Health Hazard Evaluations, Fire Fighters, 1990 to 2001; National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety). Besides being exposed to immediate hazards such as smoke inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, and building collapses, firefighters come into contact with toxic materials that cause chronic diseases. Asbestos may be the most deadly of these substances. It becomes airborne when it is released from damaged insulation or other building components.

Asbestos exposure is linked to asbestosis, lung cancer, and an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma. A painful scarring of the lungs, asbestosis can take from 10 to 50 years to develop. Early symptoms include shortness of breath and chest pain. Eventually, the disease leads to disability and impaired respiratory function. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the membranes lining the chest, lungs, and stomach cavity. Firefighters are more likely to develop the pleural form of the disease, which severely impacts breathing and will eventually prove fatal. Mesothelioma usually does not develop until from 20 to 40 years or more from the victim's first exposure to asbestos.

A firefighter risks developing asbestosis and mesothelioma if he or she breathes in asbestos dust. The risk of contracting lung cancer also increases. Insulation often contains asbestos, especially in older buildings and homes. When a fire breaks out or a structure collapses, the asbestos-containing insulation may become damaged, releasing asbestos dust. If the insulation was frayed or in need of repair before the fire, it is even more likely that asbestos will become airborne.

The collapse of the World Trade Center provides a dramatic example of the problem with asbestos-containing insulation. Days after the event, dust samples taken in the vicinity contained high levels of asbestos, according to some government and private tests (Environ Health Perspect. 2004 May; 112(6): 731-9). No doubt, the initial plumes of dust and debris contained even more asbestos. Firefighters described walking through dense clouds of dust and fumes, and asbestos was found in fire trucks months after the terrorist attack.

Firefighters may also be exposed to asbestos in routine house fires. Insulation around pipes and boilers may contain asbestos. Up to 35 million homes in the United States may contain Zonolite, attic insulation derived from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, a mineral similar to mica. Residential fires can release asbestos from the Zonolite insulation, endangering firefighters and homeowners alike. The firefighter's asbestos exposure, however, may be repeated, persistent, and close up. (See Fire Engineering, Asbestos Still a Major Threat, and EPA Issues Vermiculite Warning).

Prior to the 1980s, asbestos was used not only in insulation but also in floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roof shingles, flashing, siding, pipe cement, plasters, and joint compound. Collapses and structure fires can easily unloose asbestos from these items. Once the asbestos becomes airborne, a firefighter may breathe in asbestos fibers if he or she is not wearing adequate respiratory equipment.

Protecting the Firefighter

A "self-contained breathing apparatus" or positive pressure SCBA is one in which the firefighter carries the breathing air source. It is designed to provide protection against gases, dust, and toxic substances. A SCBA with a high efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA) cartridge works best. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists the SCBA requirements for firefighting situations (29 CFR 1910.134(g)(4)). These rules apply in states that operate OSHA-approved safety and health plans.

If you are a firefighter, you know that your SCBA sometimes feels hot, heavy, and awkward. You may be tempted to take it off during the overhaul period, once the fire is under control. Researchers have found, however, that the level of toxic chemicals such as PVC and asbestos remains great even after the fire is extinguished (Fire Engineering, Smoldering and Flying Hazards, Part 1; Lung Disease in Firefighters, International Association of Firefighters, AFL-CIO). Simply wearing a dust mask or working rapidly will not protect you from harm.

In addition to wearing a SCBA, you should consider these safety suggestions (Ontario Fire Service, Firefighters Guidance #3-2; Fire Engineering):

  • Keep respirator cleaning supplies, replacement cartridges, or replacement respirators handy.
  • Wear protective clothing. Later, shower and change into clean clothes before leaving the workplace in order to avoid carrying home asbestos and other toxic substances.
  • Do not sweep or handle dry dust. Realize that only trained, certified personnel should work to decontaminate areas that are suspected of containing asbestos.

Another tip for firefighters concerns smoking. If you smoke, now is the time to quit. Tobacco use weakens your lungs and enhances the effects of asbestos. Smoking alone can cause lung cancer. Asbestos exposure alone can cause lung cancer. However, combining smoking and asbestos exposure creates a lung cancer risk that is much higher than just adding the two risks together. For information about how to stop smoking, see Health Benefits of Quitting Smoking and the Tobacco Information and Prevention Source.