Mesothelioma Awareness Day: Best practices to avoid asbestos contamination

Firefighters have a 14 percent higher chance of dying of cancer than the general population

By Emily Walsh, FireRescue1 Contributor

A career in firefighting is riddled with dangers. From mental stresses and physical threats, like PTSD, to burns and explosions from the fire itself, firefighters must be well prepared to face the health and safety hazards of their career.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, cancer should be one of the biggest areas of concern [1]. In 2016 alone, 70 percent of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths were caused by cancer. Once you consider all the chemical-filled products in a structure fire, including cleaning supplies under the sink and flame retardants on furniture and clothing, the numbers aren’t shocking.

In 2016 alone, 70 percent of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths were caused by cancer.
In 2016 alone, 70 percent of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths were caused by cancer. (Photo/John M. Buckman III)

Asbestos insulation, tile

One such toxin is asbestos. The material had many uses in the home from piping insulation and tile adhesive to some home goods, like crockpots and hair dryers, because of its fire-resistant properties, and it can still be found in older homes today.

Asbestos was used heavily for decades before being recognized as a carcinogen that can cause a form of cancer called mesothelioma [2]. This cancer is rare and aggressive, with about 3,000 new diagnoses in the U.S. each year and only a 12-percent survival rate of five years.

Asbestos is considered the most dangerous when disturbed or friable. Firefighters have an increased exposure rate to asbestos fibers released into the air, especially when entering a burning building built before the 1980s. A recent study of 30,000 firefighters conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found firefighters have double the rate of malignant mesothelioma than the general U.S. population [3].

Even with this information, asbestos is not fully banned in the U.S. Uses declined when legislation was first passed in 1976 with the Toxic Substance Control Act, and mining of the mineral in the U.S. has since halted. However, asbestos can still be found in some imported products, and will affect people like first responders as long as it is still present in homes and buildings.

Sept. 26 is Mesothelioma Awareness Day, which has been a driving force behind raising awareness for this cancer and the toxin that causes it, as well as propelling us closer to a ban. You can learn more about Mesothelioma Awareness Day from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization [4].

Asbestos poisoning risk aversion

Though firefighters cannot avoid entering buildings with contaminated air, there are many best practices to proactively limit the body’s exposure to these chemicals:

1. Always wear protective SCBA gear, even during overhaul.

2. Set up a proper decontamination station after fires to brush or hose off carcinogenic particles while still connected to your breathing apparatus.

3. Immediately wash hands, face, neck and exposed skin with soap and water, and shower as soon as possible. Much of the exposure comes from inhaling remaining particles and skin absorption. Permeability of the skin increases by 400 percent for every 5-degree increase in skin temperature [5].

4. Bag contaminated personal protective equipment, gloves, hoods and helmets to be thoroughly washed immediately after at the station.

5. Keep gear out of vehicles, living and sleeping quarters.

6. Use ventilation systems in the firehouse to limit exposure to diesel exhaust from the rig.

Cancer presumptive laws for firefighters

Though fire departments across the country can take countless precautionary measures, the current rate of cancer in firefighters shows it is nearly impossible to completely avoid this vulnerability. With a 14-percent increased risk of dying from cancer than the general population, firefighters should know their options if they have been diagnosed with cancers like mesothelioma due to their occupation.

Unique to each state, presumption laws establish a probability that certain cancers, heart or lung diseases are caused by occupational exposure. Under these laws, diagnosed firefighters or their families may be granted compensation through workers’ compensation, enhanced pension benefits, or disability and death benefits.

In states with presumption laws, the burden of proof to find that presumption should not apply falls to the employer and its workers’ compensation carrier as long as the conditions of the law are met. Thirty-seven states currently have a form of this law with variations of the cancers covered and stipulations [6]. For example, many states require a pre-diagnosis physical exam, a minimum number of years served (usually three-12 years), limited history of smoking, and have a maximum age requirement and maximum time passed since serving. Others only cover full-time firefighters, not volunteers [7].

Arizona is the only state that explicitly names mesothelioma as a covered cancer, though others state broader descriptions like Nevada’s “exposed to a known carcinogen as defined by the IARC.” If you have been diagnosed with cancer and believe you meet your state's cancer presumption criteria, you can file a workers’ compensation claim through your employer [6].

Compensation is still possible in states without cancer presumption laws, however the burden of proof then falls upon the firefighter to prove carcinogenic exposure was related to their employment. There are other legal options you may be eligible for if diagnosed with cancers such as mesothelioma, even if presumption is not currently in your state [6].

Many of the remaining states without cancer presumption laws have introduced similar legislation, but the process can be long and contentious. Days after Ohio became the next state to offer this solace to its firefighters, representatives from Florida and Montana submitted cancer presumption bills that are currently under review in committees. These states are currently undergoing a battle between firefighter unions and local governments, weighing the costs to the city and the value of doing what’s right by their service members and providing them with the care they deserve.

For most firefighters, the job isn’t about being a hero – they simply want to save a life or help preserve a memory. Similarly, firefighters diagnosed with cancer are not looking for large payouts, but rather the means to receive treatment and go on living a long and healthy life as planned.

1. “Who we are.” Firefighter Cancer Support Network.

2. “Mesothelioma Cancer.” Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.

3. “Findings from a study of cancer among U.S. Firefighters.” CDC. July 2016

4. Reinstein, Linda. “Make September Mesothelioma Awareness Month – Here’s how!” Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. August 2017.

5. “Taking Actions Against Cancer in the Fire Service .” Firefighter Cancer Support Network.  August 2013.

6. “Presumptive Law Coverage for Cancer.” IAFF.

7. “Mesothelioma Lawyer.” Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.

About the author
Emily Walsh is dedicated to building awareness about mesothelioma at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, and connecting those affected and most vulnerable with the resources they need. She spends much of her time blogging and teaching others about the harms of asbestos and advocating for the ban of the material. 

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