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Mesothelioma Risk Factors

Modern Firefighters and Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a group of minerals that has a unique set of physical properties including tensile strength, durability, flexibility, sound absorption, and a resistance to heat, chemical, and electrical damage. This combination of rare properties led to widespread use, even in ancient times. As mass industry developed in the 1900’s, asbestos became a component of in a number of commercially available products.

Unfortunately, as many of us now know, asbestos is not the previously termed “magical mineral” but, in fact, a deadly carcinogen that has affected numerous occupations including firefighters. Tiny asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed and cause adverse health effects including malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. The nearly-indestructible nature of asbestos fibers is what makes them so harmful to the body. They can remain in lung tissue for a very long time and cause scarring, inflammation, and ultimately many of the health problems mentioned above.

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer that develops from the mesothelium, a protective lining covering many of the body's internal organs. Mesothelioma is almost always caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma often takes from 15-40 years to develop and new diagnoses average around 2,000 cases per year.

Mesothelioma law is now a rather large industry because many of the asbestos manufacturers intentionally hid the dangerous nature of their product and exposure victims and their families are entitled to financial compensation.

Many Building Materials Contain Asbestos

As mentioned above, it is the rare set of physical properties that made asbestos so appealing as a component in many construction materials. When the information concerning the health risks began to surface, asbestos was phased out of most commercial and industrial products, however the deadly mineral may still be present in many buildings constructed pre-1980. This is because of the high cost of asbestos removal/abatement. Asbestos-containing building products to be wary of include siding, shingles, roofing materials, insulation, joint compound, flooring, door gaskets, pipes, walls, patching, textured paint, and millboard. In fact, it is estimated that up to 35 million U.S. homes may still contain Zonolite, an asbestos containing insulation commonly found in attics.

Asbestos Information for Firefighters

Firefighters can be exposed to numerous asbestos-containing construction materials when fighting fire, especially in structures built before the 1980s. A fire’s hot air currents can carry released asbestos fibers throughout an entire building. The release of fibers can occur when cold water hits hot asbestos or structural failure causes asbestos-containing materials to break apart. Fire also has the ability to cause non-friable asbestos products (products in which the asbestos fibers are not easily broken apart) to become friable.

Research has found that the presence of toxic chemicals such as PVC and asbestos can remain at dangerous levels even after fires have been extinguished. A simple dust mask and working quickly does not eliminate the dangers that can arise from exposure. Firefighters wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are better protected from fiber inhalation. Many firefighters however remove their respiratory equipment after the fire is under control and begin to search through the debris for remaining embers. This behavior has the potential to expose them to asbestos fibers floating in the air and should be avoided.

Tips for the Modern Firefighter to Prevent Exposure

  • Continue to wear SCBA while searching for hotspots during overhaul stage
  • Wet parts of the building where firefighters are working to minimize asbestos fibers released into the air
  • Venting and entry techniques, which often involve opening walls, should always be performed with protective equipment
  • Equipment and clothing should be washed at the scene, if possible, to prevent the spread of contaminants beyond the work site

Working with asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure at work is reported in about 70 percent to 80 percent of all cases. However, mesothelioma has been reported in some individuals without any known exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that occur naturally as masses of strong, flexible fibers that can be separated into thin threads and woven. Asbestos has been widely used in many industrial products, including cement, brake linings, roof shingles, flooring products, textiles, and insulation. If tiny asbestos particles float in the air, especially during the manufacturing process, they may be inhaled or swallowed, and can cause serious health problems. In addition to mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer, asbestosis (a non cancerous, chronic lung ailment), and other cancers, such as those of the larynx and kidney.

Smoking does not appear to increase the risk of mesothelioma. However, the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases a person's risk of developing cancer of the air passageways in the lung.

Who is at increased risk for developing mesothelioma?

Asbestos has been mined and used commercially since the late 1800s. Its use greatly increased during World War II. Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos dust. Initially, the risks associated with asbestos exposure were not known. However, an increased risk of developing mesothelioma was later found among shipyard workers, people who work in asbestos mines and mills, producers of asbestos products, workers in the heating and construction industries, and other trades people. Today, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets limits for acceptable levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace. People who work with asbestos wear personal protective equipment to lower their risk of exposure.

The risk of asbestos-related disease increases with heavier exposure to asbestos and longer exposure time. However, some individuals with only brief exposures have developed mesothelioma. On the other hand, not all workers who are heavily exposed develop asbestos-related diseases.

There is some evidence that family members and others living with asbestos workers have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, and possibly other asbestos-related diseases. This risk may be the result of exposure to asbestos dust brought home on the clothing and hair of asbestos workers. To reduce the chance of exposing family members to asbestos fibers, asbestos workers are usually required to shower and change their clothing before leaving the workplace.

Reprinted with Permission of The National Cancer Institute©.