Did protective gear put firefighters at risk of asbestos exposure?

Builders often used asbestos in the construction projects until the late 1970s or even early 1980s. If those old buildings burn, the debris left behind and the disturbance of that debris  can release carcinogenic asbestos fibers into the air.

That is one reason why firefighters face such a high risk of developing mesothelioma.

Unfortunately, burning buildings are not the only potential exposure risks Tennessee firefighters faced. Another serious risk they unknowingly encountered likely came from the clothing that was supposed to protect them.

Asbestos fibers were common in firefighter gear

Few people associate asbestos with clothing. The material is more commonly associated with the construction of buildings and ships due to its fire-resistant qualities.

However, ​these same qualities led manufacturers to use it in personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE containing asbestos was especially common in jobs that exposed workers to extreme heat, fire or electricity – like firefighters.

It was common to find asbestos in firefighters’:

  • Gloves
  • Boots
  • Jackets
  • Pants
  • Hoods

Manufacturers wove the asbestos directly into the clothing or linings to protect firefighters from the fire. However, it also increased the risk of asbestos exposure, especially when the items were torn or punctured and used repeatedly thereafter.

Firefighter gear is mostly comprised of Nomex, Kevlar, plastic, and other fibers now. Federal law does not ban asbestos, but it outlines strict regulations regarding its use. Small percentages of asbestos are still allowed in certain products, though most clothing manufacturers no longer use it.

Even so, the risk remains, especially for retired firefighters. Turnout gear contained asbestos in past decades, and due to mesothelioma’s long latency period of 15-40 years or more, retired firefighters still face the threat of cancer.

How did firefighters suffer exposure from clothing?

It was common for asbestos fibers to cling to a firefighter’s clothing after they returned from a call. That is one reason why fire stations have such strict cleaning and contamination policies for their turnout gear and PPE.

However, the gear itself could have also released asbestos into the air when firefighters completed simple tasks, including:

  • Putting on or removing gear
  • Accidentally tearing gear
  • Deterioration of gear, from exposure to heat
  • Merely moving while wearing the gear

The government recognized the risks asbestos posed to workers as early as 1918. Yet, manufacturers and employers continued to use it without warning employees about the risks of exposure. Therefore, retired firefighters might still pursue legal action and compensation for the hidden dangers they faced on the job that threaten their health now.

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