Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Firefighters and mesothelioma: 4 important questions to answer

By Devin Golden   

Features Health and Wellness

Firefighters risk their lives daily to help save others from danger. This selfless act is the nature of the occupation.

Another regular nature — one that isn’t so obvious — is the risk of developing mesothelioma.

Almost all buildings from residential to commercial built prior to the 1980s were done so using asbestos, which is a fine mineral that is resistant to heat. Firefighters are at risk of exposure to several respiratory toxins that could be released in fires.

Asbestos is one of the most toxic in this group, and it’s also one of the most prevalent in burning or collapsing buildings. Asbestos was used for much of the 20th century and even in the centuries before to protect flammable objects or building components from fires.


Asbestos is also the only known cause of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that forms in either the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma compared to the general public.

These four questions are the most important for firefighters who interact with asbestos on a regular basis.

How does mesothelioma form?

When asbestos particles flake off, they float in the air due to their microscopic size and light weight. Anyone nearby can breathe in or swallow these fibers, which then travel into the body and lodge into the cells along these linings. The fibers can irritate the cells, which then mutate and become cancerous.

Which building and cConstruction materials have asbestos?

Many construction materials included asbestos to prevent fires and insulate the building. Some of the most common include:

  • Drywall
  • Roofing and siding
  • Floor tiles
  • Electrical wiring
  • Insulation in the walls and ceiling
  • Pipes
  • Household appliances (such as oven mitts, hairdryers, toasters, ovens and electrical sockets)

 If a house catches fire, the asbestos around any of these items or materials could be released into the air. Thus, any firefighters entering or in the vicinity of the building is in danger.

How do you know if you have mesothelioma?

Answering this question is difficult because mesothelioma has a long latency period, which means it takes a while to develop. Most studies suggest that the cancer forms between 20 and 50 years after asbestos fibers lodge into the cells.

Therefore, connecting your mesothelioma diagnosis to an exposure occurrence is difficult. Most firefighters who develop mesothelioma are unaware how the cancer formed. They can’t pinpoint exactly which job or building led to their exposure.

However, there are medical tips for firefighters. Whether they are currently working in the occupation or retired, they should receive regular check-ups with a doctor to ensure there are no masses forming.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive, fast-spreading cancer. Early detection is the most effective way to halt this spreading and attack it with treatment.

Safety tips for firefighters  

The increased risk of asbestos exposure for firefighters means there’s an increased importance to prioritize safety. Here are some safety tips to reduce their exposure: 

  • Wash all clothing and equipment on scene to avoid carrying asbestos into the home or other location (which can put more people at risk of exposure).
  • Always wear a self-contained breathing apparatus to avoid inhaling asbestos dust while on the job.
  • Wet down all areas that may include asbestos, as this prevents particles from entering the air.
  • Learn as much as possible about which products and buildings contain asbestos and also what this mineral looks like.


Devin Golden is the content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin’s objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.

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