North Carolina firefighters face hazards, including smoke, fire and explosions. They may also be exposed to asbestos, which causes fatal diseases, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. Asbestos fibers are most dangerous when disturbed and released into the air that often occurs when buildings are burning and firefighters are inside attempting to put out the fire. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have double the rate of malignant mesothelioma, a fatal asbestos-related disease, than the general population.
An important piece of safety equipment, a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), helps prevent firefighters from inhaling airborne asbestos fibers. The National Institute certifies SCBAs for Safety and Health (NIOSH) after undergoing rigorous tests to ensure that they provide adequate protection from harmful chemicals and pathogens. Even though firefighters typically wear SCBAs, which help limit their exposure to asbestos by inhalation, asbestos fibers may also attach to their clothing, skin or hair. These fibers can transfer from one surface to another, leading to secondhand asbestos exposure.
Therefore, in addition to wearing SCBAs, firefighters should take several other precautions prior to leaving the scene of a fire such as removing their outerwear, shoes and any equipment that may contain asbestos fibers. These items should be thoroughly washed at the station and prior to returning home. Skin creases in permeability as skin temperature increases, therefore firefighters should also be sure to wash all exposed skin as soon as possible.
Due to these unique occupational hazards and the increased risk of cancer among firefighters, states – including North Carolina – have developed presumption laws that establish the probability that certain types of cancers are occupational diseases. Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma can take decades to manifest, only being discovered when the disease has progressed to a late stage.
Therefore, it is imperative that firefighters closely and regularly monitor their health so that they may seek treatment early, when treatment for illnesses is most effective. Firefighters and their family members who have been diagnosed with a fatal asbestos-related disease should seek experienced and knowledgeable legal counsel when filing claims.