The nation's largest study of firefighters uncovered a startling statistic: firefighters suffer double the national rate of mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer that's directly linked to asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma can take as long as 50 years to develop after a person is exposed to asbestos, so it may be missed in shorter-term studies. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) partnered with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) on this study that includes 60 years of data. The study reveals that the time span from employment as a firefighter, to being diagnosed with mesothelioma, averages 45 years.
Firefighters must often enter burning buildings to conduct rescues and fight the blaze, and conduct post-fire evaluations of the wreckage to determine the cause of the fire. Each aspect of the job may expose them to asbestos and its related serious health risks.
Asbestos was used as a common manufacturing material through the 1980s, and it is found in thousands of ordinary building products such as soundproofing panels, insulation, flooring, siding, and roofing. Many businesses and residential and municipal buildings throughout the U.S. still contain asbestos to the present day. Toxic particles can be released when walls or ceilings collapse in a fire and asbestos fibers become airborne, putting firefighters at risk. Researchers theorize that this exposure is linked to the high rate of mesothelioma found among firefighters.
The NIOSH / USFA study, published in the October 2013 issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, pulls data on nearly 30,000 firefighters employed in Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco from 1950 through 2009. Studying such a large pool of firefighters enables researchers to identify strong correlations between working as a firefighter and the incidence of cancer, and supports the findings of previous studies. Further research will be conducted by these organizations.