Firefighters face some of the most dangerous work conditions in the world. They bravely work to put out fires and save the people inside burning buildings under life-threatening circumstances. They respond to emergencies like car accidents, flooding, and even medical crises. Most American firefighters work on a volunteer basis, literally risking their own lives for the benefit of their communities. These heroic men and women work long hours and repeatedly put their lives in danger to protect total strangers. In addition to the expected dangers of being a firefighter, firefighters also face a high risk of deadly asbestos exposure.
Asbestos Exposure for Firefighters
There are three primary ways that firefighters can be exposed to asbestos. First, they might encounter asbestos building materials when extinguishing fires. Many homes and businesses were built with asbestos materials in the early and mid-1900s. When an older building catches on fire, it can literally rain down clouds of asbestos from shingles, ceiling tiles, insulation, furnace gaskets, and drywall.
The protective clothing that firefighters wear to prevent burns can also expose them to asbestos. Between the 1930s and 1970s, many firefighter uniforms and helmets were made from asbestos because of its heat resistant qualities. Fire stations can also be a hotbed for asbestos exposure. When returning from a call, dust from a burning building can be scattered around the station, leaving a trail of asbestos and putting everyone at risk. If the fire station was built before 1980, it may even have asbestos materials in the walls, ceiling, or insulation.
One of the most serious exposure risks in recent history happened after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Firefighters that were first responders or worked to search for survivors in the hours and days after the attacks were exposed to large amounts of asbestos in the dust, debris, and smoke. After firefighters are exposed to asbestos, it can take decades before symptoms appear. However, some doctors believe the high concentration exposure on 9/11 could result in a much earlier development of mesothelioma and related diseases. Firefighters that were on the scene at the World Trade Center should work closely with their doctors to monitor their health and be alert for any warning signs of diseases related to asbestos exposure.
Firefighters and Asbestos-Related Lawsuits
Over the years, there have been dozens of lawsuits involving firefighters who were exposed to asbestos. In 2011, a group of Washington firefighters sued the city after they learned they had been exposed to asbestos during training exercises. Officials knew that the home used for the training contained asbestos, but they did not alert firefighters and many failed to wear protective masks. Eventually, a settlement was reached when the city agreed to cover the cost of lifetime medical monitoring for the 49 involved firefighters. If any of the firefighters do get sick from the asbestos exposure, the city agreed to pay medical costs up to $750,000.
There have also been lawsuits related to 9/11 asbestos exposures. The initial lawsuit was filed in 2003 and reached a settlement seven years later. The settlement provides up to $657 million to workers at ground zero who have developed asbestos-related illnesses.
Asbestos presents a clear danger to those who come in contact with it. While it is currently regulated, too many people continue to come into contact with the dangerous material through the course of their work. Because asbestos-related illnesses do not occur immediately after exposure, it can be difficult to properly diagnose mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. If you believe you were exposed to asbestos while doing your job, inform your doctor. If you’ve already received a mesothelioma diagnosis, consider speaking with a lawyer. You shouldn’t have to pay for medical care when your illness was caused by someone else’s recklessness.