Firefighter exposure to asbestos continues, even though laws have limited many of its uses due to the substance’s known carcinogenic qualities. According to the National Cancer Institute, the asbestos used in buildings pre-legislation can harm rescue workers as the flames release the fibers into the air.

Many factors may affect whether a firefighter develops malignant mesothelioma.

Asbestos exposure characteristics

A firefighter is more likely to develop mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease if the dose is high and the exposure is of longer duration. However, shorter exposure times and amounts may still lead to a serious case depending on aspects of the fibers themselves. The size, shape and chemical structure of the fibers can increase the risk, as studies have revealed that some forms stay in the lungs longer than others.

Safety regulations and protection

Firefighters should have equipment that meets safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Organization. Protective clothing, head protection, respirators and other personal protective equipment should shield or isolate them from chemical hazards such as asbestos fibers.

Mesothelioma rates

BMJ Journals published results from researchers who have studied firefighter cancer risks over the course of several years. Compared to the general population, firefighters in the study had a 9% increase in the occurrence of cancer, and a 14% increase in cancer deaths. These include a number of different types of cancer as well as mesothelioma. Firefighters over the age of 65 had a higher mortality rate from all cancers than younger firefighters.

The study included information from work histories such as the number of days exposed, the number of fire-runs and the amount of time spent at fires when identifying risk factors.