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One of the many dangers firefighters face when they enter a burning building is exposure to asbestos. Prolonged exposure to asbestos causes various diseases, the most serious of which is mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart.

A History of Asbestos in the U.S.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral widely used in the United States throughout the 20th century. Manufacturers and construction companies valued asbestos because of its fireproofing and insulating capabilities, and used the mineral in a variety of building materials:

  • Drywall and joint compound
  • Plaster, mud and texture coats
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Siding and shingles, siding
  • Popcorn ceilings
  • Caulking, and more

Because of its widespread use, asbestos is the leading cause of occupational cancer.

The general public became aware of the dangers of asbestos in the 1970s, and its use was phased out — but never completely banned — by the “Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Act of 1989.” Nevertheless, more than 30 million pounds of asbestos are still used annually in the United States.

The Danger of Asbestos

Older buildings constructed before the 1980s pose the most danger to firefighters. Asbestos is a highly friable material — it breaks apart easily and becomes airborne when disturbed or damaged by fire. Firefighters can inhale large amounts of these microscopic fibers, and unknowingly increase their risk of developing an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma.

Two recent studies on cancer risks among firefighters found an increase in mesothelioma incidence in the U.S. and Nordic countries, including Norway and Sweden. These reports show that mesothelioma is an occupational hazard particular to firefighting, regardless of geographical location, and one that has been rising in recent decades.

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Where to Locate Asbestos

As a general rule, if a house or building was built:

Before the mid 1980s, it’s highly likely that it’s been built with asbestos-containing materials. Between the mid 1980s and 1990, it’s likely there are asbestos-containing materials. After 1990, it’s highly unlikely there are asbestos-containing materials.

If you ever come into contact with a suspected ACM, do not attempt to move it. Leave it undisturbed and contact an EPA-certified asbestos professional to test and remove the material.

Quick Safety Tips

  • Get an airtight seal when putting on your respirator and make sure it has the correct level of protection. Respirators equipped with a purple HEPA filter; or those with an N-100, P-100, or R-100 NIOSH rating; specifically filter asbestos fibers .
  • Reduce airborne dust by wetting parts of the building where firefighters are working. This keeps asbestos fibers from becoming airborne.
  • Wear a respirator when conducting overhaul operations, like searching for hotspots or fighting structural fires.
  • Keep cleaning supplies, replacement cartridges, and replacement respirators easily accessible.
  • Wear protective equipment when using venting and entry techniques that involve opening walls.
  • Avoid handling dry dust at a site. Only trained personnel who are certified in asbestos abatement should decontaminate areas suspected of containing ACMs.
  • After a fire, shower and change into clean clothes before leaving the site. Ask your supervisor about specialized cleaning procedures, like NFPA 1851. Changing and disposing of clothes on-site avoids contaminating other areas, like your firehouse or home.

Symptoms of mesothelioma can take 10 to 50 years to appear. If you suspect you have been exposed to asbestos— however long the period —see a specialist and get tested. Most importantly, make sure you’re taking the proper safety precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones.

If you have questions about asbestos and mesothelioma, order a free mesothelioma help guide to learn about the disease, treatment options and more.