Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Firefighters & Lung Problems

Firefighting equipment is cumbersome.

Lung problems would seem a logical occupational hazard for firefighters, but according to the International Association of Firefighters, until recently studies have been inconclusive. Ironically, because firefighters are generally healthier than the average population, the incidence of lung problems among them may have seemed lower per capita than normal. In actual fact, says the IAFF Department of Health and Safety, firefighters have a significantly increased risk of developing acute lung disease, regardless of statistics.

Types of Lung Problems

Repeated exposure to smoke, asbestos, gases, chemicals, particulate, mineral oil inhalation and other substances mean that firefighters face an increased risk of diminished lung capacity. This includes lung cancer, pulmonary disease, asthma, tuberculosis and mesothelioma, a particular form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.


The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center resulted in an increased awareness of respiratory dangers to firefighters. Hundreds of tons of asbestos were released from the North Tower, and many firefighters are now suffering the aftereffects of breathing the contaminated air.

A study in the New York Post reports that sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung sickness, has affected as many as 26 Ground Zero firefighters since 9/11. New York Fire Department doctors Dr. David Prezant and Dr. Kerry Kelly, who were involved in both the study and the resulting report, say that the rate at which firefighters and rescue workers developed sarcoidosis was five times higher than in the years before the attack.


Man firefighters at the World Trade Center that day are experiencing a rapid decline of lung function in a short period of time. The chairman of the IAFF's board of medical advisers, Dr. James Melius, warns firefighters of the dangers of lung disease from flying asbestos dust when they demolish old buildings in the course of their work. They also run the risk of developing tuberculosis through giving mouth to mouth resuscitation.


Firefighters use respirators to diminish the effect of dangerous emissions on their lungs, but many are reluctant to wear them. According to New York Fire Department spokesman Frank Gibbon, the equipment is uncomfortable, and communication is difficult when wearing it. Also, after a blaze is partially controlled, firefighters often take the equipment off as they search for any remaining signs of fire. This exposes them to toxic dust, chemicals and airborne asbestos.


The IAFF believes firefighters to be at high risk for lung problems of all types because of the noxious chemicals and other irritants they encounter in the course of their work. In British Columbia, Canada, the Worker’s Compensation Act has been amended to include primary site lung cancer for non-smokers as an occupational disease for firefighters. In the U.S., state law presumes certain conditions to be job related. For firefighters, cancer of the lungs, among other cancers, is now a presumptive condition, making it easier for firefighters to collect accidental disability pensions when they retire.

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