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Firefighters and asbestos exposure

The recent death of a firefighter from Michigan serves as a sobering reminder of the risks that firefighters endure. It also reminds us of the debt society owes to these men and women who work every day to keep others safe.

According to the report from a local newspaper, the fallen firefighter was a Marine who hailed from Southgate, Michigan. He had trained and served as a firefighter crash rescue leader. And his training exposed him to chemicals that likely caused his fatal colon cancer. His death was the latest, unfortunate reminder of the risks presented by carcinogenic building materials.

Burning buildings fuel deadly vapors

As a firefighter in the Marines, the man had trained in giant fire pits full of jet fuel and parts of broken planes. He also trained in a fire pit the Marines had dug out over buried stores of Agent Orange. He suffered from exposure to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) and other materials, such as asbestos, that are known to cause cancer.

Indeed, these training fires, like building fires, can release a host of toxic materials, including:

  • Carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and other gases that can asphyxiate you
  • Irritants like formaldehyde and acrolein
  • PFAs
  • Potentially harmful particulate matter
  • Airborne fibers such as asbestos, carbon fiber and ceramics

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies recognize the threats presented by many of these materials. But they don’t always demand that building owners replace them before they start to degrade. For example, the EPA restricts the use of asbestos in new building materials, but it doesn’t force owners to remove old materials until they start to wear. As a result, fires in these old buildings can expose firefighters to toxic fumes.

It’s important to note that the risk is in no way limited to firefighters in the Marines. Last year, NBC reported that San Diego firefighters likely faced exposure to asbestos during their training. And those heroic men and women who responded to the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 have developed cancers at an alarming rate.

Should firefighters look beyond workers compensation?

Workers’ compensation will never make up for the loss of a loved one. Nor does workers’ compensation typically cover the full cost of a disease like cancer. Workers’ comp typically covers only a fraction of the worker’s total wages.

Accordingly, firefighters and their families may need to look elsewhere to receive the compensation they are due. They work to keep the public safe, and property owners need to do their part as well. If property owners, builders or manufacturers fail to keep their buildings and materials reasonably safe, they may be liable.

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