Asbestos
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Firefighters - Mesothelioma Risks

It's no secret that firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. Yet there may be even more dangers at the scene of a fire than the visibly flickering flames, including the "silent killer" known as asbestos.

A naturally occurring group of minerals, asbestos can be divided into several varieties: chrysotile (white) asbestos; amosite (brown) asbestos, and crocidolite (blue) asbestos. All of these have had industrial and commercial applications, although chrysotile is the most commonly used. Asbestos has often been used for insulation purposes, due to its extreme resistance to heat and flame. It can also be found in fire-retardant coatings or spray-on insulation, concrete, bricks, gaskets, ceiling and floor tiles, drywall, cement sheeting, plaster, adhesives, roofing materials, interior fire doors, and fireproof clothing, curtains and blankets.

Experts agree that when asbestos remains intact, it is relatively safe. When it is damaged, however, it can pose a terrible threat. Asbestos is composed of microscopic fibers which are easily inhaled, and which can embed themselves in the lungs and their lining. This lining, called the mesothelium, is a membrane which supports and protects the lungs. When the asbestos fibers penetrate it, they can lead to a deadly cancer called mesothelioma.

A fire and its aftermath - such as collapses, or the necessity of a firefighter to destroy parts of a structure in order to rescue those inside - can easily damage a great deal of asbestos, thereby contaminating the site. Unless the firefighter is wearing respiratory equipment, such as a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a high efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA), it's very likely that that firefighter would inhale the asbestos fibers. Asbestos, furthermore, can remain airborne for a long period of time, so even after the fire has been contained or extinguished, the asbestos may remain - and remain a hazard.

The symptoms of mesothelioma may include shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty catching one's breath or labored breathing, chest pain or tightness, wheezing, and persistent or bloody cough. Unfortunately, because these symptoms also occur in other respiratory illnesses such as emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), mesothelioma is not generally diagnosed correctly until it has reached late stages, which means that treatment options are more limited.

Surgery may be an option for those whose mesothelioma is diagnosed in Stage I, but the proximity of the tumor to the lungs may make surgery less than ideal. Usually, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, either alone or, more frequently, in combination, are used as treatments. In the earlier stages of mesothelioma, they may be used to shrink the tumor and stop its spread throughout the body. In later stages, these treatments can be used to reduce pain and to make breathing easier.

Another treatment, called thoracentesis, is used for similar pain-relief and breathing amelioration purposes. In thoracentesis, a thin needle is inserted into the chest cavity in order to remove excess amounts of pleural fluid, and make it more comfortable for the patient.

Firefighters need to take every possible precaution - using their SCBA at all stages of the fire fighting process, from the initial entry into the building to the overhaul stage - to prevent asbestos exposure - and they should also tell their doctors about any possible previous exposure they may have had.

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Workers at Risk for Asbestos Exposure

Below are a list of occupations and trades that were at risk for asbestos exposure:

Last Edited: Thu November 14, 2013