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First Responders

When there is an emergency, first responders -- firefighters, police officers, paramedics and emergency medical technicians -- respond without caution. They don’t question their own safety to help others, and they’re certainly not thinking about the dangers that can happen up to 50 years from now.

First responders are among the high-risk groups that are susceptible to asbestos exposure and developing asbestos-related cancers. Perhaps two decades ago no one would have considered first responders to be at a high risk for this form of cancer, but recent events that include natural disasters and terrorist attacks have brought it to the forefront.

First Responders and Natural Disasters

From Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to devastating tornadoes that leveled towns to wildfires that have destroyed communities, natural disasters happen with little to no warning. Even if people are able to get ready for a natural disaster, they’re certainly not thinking about the asbestos insulation in the attic or the asbestos roof tiles on the house.

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First responders are typically the first at the scene of a natural disaster to rescue the trapped and take the injured to the hospital. When tornadoes ripped through Oklahoma and Missouri in early 2013, they leveled towns, likely leaving asbestos fibers in the air. Most first responders didn’t wear airway protection as they dug through the rubble looking for survivors. In many cases, the initial impact of the natural disaster isn’t the first chance for being exposed to asbestos. It can happen multiple times, during the rescue and recovery process and during building demolition.

First Responders and Terrorist Attacks

Today, all first responders are trained to deal with all kinds of terrorist attacks. Despite this, it’s likely that no one could have been prepared for the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. When the buildings collapsed in Manhattan, they released a cloud of dust that contained countless different chemicals, including asbestos. Records show that a mixture of asbestos and cement was used as fireproofing material when the buildings were being constructed in the early 1970s. Studies conducted after the attack said there was an overwhelming concentration of asbestos particles in the air.

In the spring 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing again revived the fears that first responders would be on the front line of asbestos exposure. Many of the buildings in the bombing area were constructed in the early 1900s, when asbestos use was widespread. This put first responders at a greater risk.

Protecting First Responders Against Asbestos Exposure

There are a number of ways that first responders can be protected against being exposed to asbestos. Firefighters in particular need the most protection because they are usually the first among the responders to enter a building. It is important that they wear their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to protect against airborne asbestos. This equipment provides fresh and safe air while they are in unsafe conditions.


France, David. “Is Ground Zero Safe?” Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3067591/#.UobmVqV7u4I

Peeples, Lynn. “Oklahoma Tornado Health Risks May Lie In The Rubble.” Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/oklahoma-tornado-health-risks_n_3322218.html