Mesothelioma Among U.S. Firefighters

Julian Ybarra, Journalist
Injected Media

(Tucson, Arizona – May 23, 2017) Career firefighters often face dangerous situations in the line of duty. A firefighter’s job is to extinguish fires and rescue those civilians caught amongst the flame. However over the decades a firefighter’s job in certain county’s have expanded to emergency medical technicians and various types of first responder duties. They are the first on scene to a burning building, forest fire, collision incident, or natural disaster and the last to leave. Some firefighters that were fortunate enough to live out their carriers into retirement found a new internal battle to fight.

Back in 2010 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study of 30,000 firefighters from major cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco in order to determine a possible link between firefighting and certain types of cancer. In conjunction with the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Fire Administration, the results in 2015 showed that firefighters had an increased risk to certain types of cancers than the rest of the U.S. population.

Cancers in the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems were found in the firefighters that participated in the NIOSH study. However mesothelioma was contracted twice as much as compared to the general U.S. population.

For more details about the NIOSH study results download the PDF

Reasons why? Mesothelioma though one of the rarest form of toxin cancers is apparent in firefighters than most citizens is because Mesothelioma is a direct result from long term exposure to Asbestos.

Asbestos was widely used between 1930 well into the 70’s as a heat and fire resistant construction material, such as roofing materials, cement, asbestos sheets, fume hoods, drywall taping, floor and ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, shingles, and vinyl.

Asbestos was used in industries such as:

  • Commercial and Private Building Construction
  • Shipbuilding
  • Automotive Industry
  • Household Appliances
  • Power Stations

It’s no wonder that firefighters both retired and active duty are showing symptoms after 10 to 50 years from constant contact with this compound. In fact there are many cases resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attack as the twin towers collapsed firefighters and first responders were exposed to large amounts of dust, smoke and debris. Making it extremely dangerous since a large portion of the twin towers were covered in asbestos.  


There are three types of mesothelioma that are diagnosed to a patient named after the area of the body the cancer appears in: pleural (lungs), peritoneal (abdomen), and pericardial (heart).

Pleural (lung) cancer is the most common type of Mesothelioma with about 2500 new cases a year. There is a 80 percent chance of being diagnosed with this type of cancer while working with asbestos. This type of cancer settles in the lining of the lung (mesothelium) a membrane that allows the lung to expand and contrast. The asbestos fibers settle in the lung causing chronic inflammation and scare tissue which may leading to tumors. 

Symptoms include an almost random variety of:

  • Chest or lower back pain
  • Persistent coughing
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Fluid around the lungs (pleural effusion)
  • Hoarseness or difficulty speaking
  • Blood clots (less common)

Approximately 20 percent of all mesothelioma cases are peritoneal (abdominal) with about 500 new cases per year. It is likely that asbestos reached the abdomen through the lymphatic system. Any symptoms can take decades to appear after the first asbestos contact. Early diagnosis and treatment are the most effective options for survival.

The third and least common type is pericardial (heart) cancer with a one percent contraction rate. Although this is the least common cancer of all three, it has the worst prognosis. Most patients diagnosed with this type of cancer live for about 6 months. This cancer is a result of tumors forming around the heart in the two mesothelial layers. These layers create a small cavity around the heart, and are responsible for allowing the heart to expand and contract. Giving the perfect area for tumors to form. Common symptoms are chest pain, fluid build up, and arrhythmia. Most patients that die from this heart tumor never are diagnosed correctly until it is too late and an autopsy is complete.

A majority of the time doctors will look at a patient and misdiagnose the wrong disease or disorder such as:

  • Angiosarcoma
  • Metastatic tumors
  • Carcinoma
  • Leukemia
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Lymphoma

It’s not just asbestos, Modern houses are more toxic than ever before with a majority of homes having many electronic devices, covered in synthetic carpets, and have plastic objects decorating the interior.

In an article by The Atlantic synthetic materials create hundreds of times more smoke than organic ones; flame retardants alone double the amount of smoke and increase toxic gasses 10-fold.”

Electronic devices such as televisions, computers, cell phones, and microwave all have chemical compounds when burned they release toxic smoke and are inhaled by firefighters.

As the number of firefighters and their families affected by occupational cancer steadily increases, improving education, prevention measures and support are imperative. As part of this effort, the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Alliance is hosting the Fire Service Occupational Cancer Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona September 7-8, 2017. Presentations and workshops will cover current research, prevention strategies, presumptive legislation, available benefits, and other relevant topics.

Fire Service Occupational Cancer Symposium
Sheraton Grand Phoenix Hotel, Phoenix, Arizona, September 7–8

For information, visit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation online.

Also check out the National Fire Protection Association Conference & Expo. This is a can’t-miss showcase that combines an unrivaled educational conference with a comprehensive expo of the latest products and services. If you are a firefighter or first responder there is no better opportunity to learn, discover, network, and stay current with advances in your field.

NFPA Conference Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Boston, Massachusetts, June 4-7, 2017

Important Tools in the Fight Against Firefighter Cancer Risk: Fire Station Design and Procedural Changes
Sunday, June 4, 8:30–9:30 a.m.
Paul Erickson, LeMay Erickson Willcox Architects

Firefighter Fatalities and Injuries: Understanding the Problem
Monday, June 5, 9:30–10:30 a.m.
Rita Fahey, NFPA

Every Firefighter Needs an Annual Physical: An Interactive Discussion on Why and How to Make it Happen
Tuesday, June 6, 8–9 a.m.
David Fischler, Suffolk County (NY) Fire Rescue; John Sullivan, Worcester Fire Department

Promoting a Culture of Safety and Fitness: Preventing Cancer, Heart Disease, and Injuries in Boston Firefighters
Tuesday, June 6, 9:30–10:30 a.m.
Michael Hamrock, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center

Cancer in the Fire Service: A Public Policy Risk Analysis
Tuesday, June 6, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Peter Berger, Hallandale Beach Fire Rescue; Greg Moulin, DFW Airport Fire Department

Fire Service App Education Session, “The NFPA First Responder Mobile Portal: Protecting and Empowering First Responders”

Sunday, June 4, 10–11 a.m.

NFPA’s Nathaniel Lin and Ken Willette will present an overview of the new NFPA fire service app, designed to provide NFPA information and resources to firefighters. The app is also intended to supply the fire service with relevant news; information on continuing education and certification programs; tools to document and store first responders’ well-being and hazard-exposure information; and more.

Fire Service App Announcement
Sunday, June 4, 1 p.m.

As part of his General Session opening remarks, NFPA President Jim Pauley will introduce a new app developed by NFPA to provide the fire service with a variety of critical easy-to-access resources.

First Responder Health Forum
Tuesday, June 6, 9 a.m.–6:30 p.m.

This daylong special event includes expert speakers, networking, health screenings, and tech demos, with topics including cardiac risks, cancer prevention, fitness requirements, occupational health, safety policies, and more. Event includes remarks by Joseph Finn, Boston Fire Commissioner, and Kevin D. Quinn, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.


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