First Responders and Lung Cancer

First responders include emergency medical service (EMS) technicians, paramedics, police, and firefighters. Their jobs usually entail offering medical and rescue support services in response to natural and man-made threats, attacks, and disasters.

Asbestos is one of the many harmful toxins that first responders encounter regularly in the line of duty. Those entering burning, crumbling, or destroyed building structures that contain air pollutants from smoke and other harmful materials run the risk of being exposed.

First responders who helped during the 9/11 attacks were also dangerously exposed to toxic dust that contained asbestos and other pollutants and are now, a couple of decades later, beginning to see the harmful effects on their health. After dangerous levels of exposure, it can sometimes take over 20 years for lung cancer or other related-disease to develop.

Occupational Exposure Risks From Air Toxins

Being the primary line of defense for the nation’s communities, first responders put themselves at elevated risk for exposure to toxins daily. Asbestos was once used abundantly in the construction of many structures and materials due to its durability and resistance to fire and is still being found in buildings today.

First responders also risk coming in contact with other harmful air pollutants (HAPs) and chemicals like smog, radon, lead, and carbon monoxide among others. When these toxins are inhaled or ingested by workers nearby, the tiny particles get lodged in or around the lungs or nearby region and begin irritating the tissue. After so many years of damaging and scratching tissues, tumors may begin to form. Lung cancer, when tumors form inside one or both lungs, is one of the most common illnesses developed from these pollutants.

This is an image representing pleural mesothelioma.

Other Common Respiratory Illnesses Among First Responders

Besides developing tumors in the lungs like with lung cancer, first responders have also been known to develop other related respiratory illnesses. These include:


When asbestos fibers get lodged around the lung tissues, the tiny fibers begin to scratch and irritate the area. After as many as 10 years of this happening, the tissues get scarred, causing respiratory issues like wheezing, trouble breathing, and excessive cough. Asbestosis can be the preliminary disease to more serious illnesses for first responders further down the line.


After being exposed to harmful air pollutants for a long enough period, eventually, a person could develop asthma, an illness that is characterized by airwaves becoming sensitive, swelling, and getting narrow more easily when triggered. During an asthma attack, the airways may also produce excessive mucus and the person can have trouble breathing smoothly.

Pleural Mesothelioma

If malignant tumors develop in the tissue lining the lungs (pleura), this is known as pleural mesothelioma. This is another common cancer that can develop from exposure to asbestos, radon, smog, or other carcinogens that can be inhaled. Symptoms can include sore throat, chronic cough, and chest pain among others.


Refers to the condition of inflamed lung tissue caused by an infection. This inflammation in the lung tissue could cause chest pain, excessive cough, and sore throat.

If you’re a first responder and begin to develop any of the above symptoms, visit your doctor immediately. They will run some early screening tests and give you an official medical diagnosis.

This is an image representing a face mask.

Tips for Avoiding Contamination

There are several things first responders can do to try and avoid dangerous levels of exposure on the job. Some tips to avoid first and secondhand exposure to asbestos or other toxic air pollutants while on the job:

  • Wear adequate face, body, and hand coverings when entering burning, crumbling, or otherwise decomposed building structures that could be surrounded by toxic dust
  • After the job is complete, take off coverings and wash them or store them somewhere contained to be cleaned
  • Take a shower at the station or work facility before coming home
  • If working indoors, ensure the area is properly ventilated or utilize fans, respirators, and air filters

These are just some steps that first responders can take to reduce their chances of exposure to air pollutants. Employers may have other standard operating procedures put in place for their employees.

This is an image representing a firefighter.

First Responders and 9/11

Many emergency medical responders went to serve their communities and offer medical and rescue services after the September 11th terrorist attacks. When the World Trade Center’s twin towers were destroyed, the entire area was engulfed in toxic dust riddled with asbestos, glass, lead, and other harmful materials. While 343 firefighters and paramedics died in the fires and collapse of the twin towers, over 150 have died since then from related diseases, with an even greater number sick or developing illness from the lingering effects of the toxic dust. It can sometimes take 10 to over 20 years for diseases to develop. Since it’s been about 20 years since the incident, the effects of exposure are now beginning to show.

Helpful Resources

There are organizations in place that offer resources and information for first responders who have questions and concerns. Some notable resources you can trust include:

The CDC is a governmental organization that put together the World Trade Center Health Program to offer help and compensation for first responders or other individuals who may have been impacted by 9/11.

Do You Need Legal Assistance?

If you’re a first responder who has developed lung cancer or other illness due to occupational exposure to asbestos or other hazardous air pollutants, you may be entitled to monetary compensation. We have experienced attorneys that can provide you with a free case evaluation of your unique situation.