Firefighters at Increased Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Mesothelioma attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm highlight the story of a California firefighter, husband and father who recently succumbed to asbestos-induced lung cancer. Firefighters, like construction and shipyard workers, are highly susceptible to asbestos exposure, a danger that many believe not enough is being done to prevent.

The fireman, George Rohrbacher, began working at the Milpitas Fire Department in 1964, long before asbestos was even recognized as a carcinogen. Because of its extraordinary heat-resistant properties, asbestos was used abundantly in construction materials up until the early 1980s. It was used most commonly in insulating, fire-proofing, floor and ceiling, and pipe-fitting materials.

Rohrbacher worked at the California fire department until 1992 – that is nearly three decades of potential asbestos exposure (not to mention diesel exhaust, benzene, and PCB exposure). Compounding this risk was the total lack of breathing and safety equipment available for firefighters in the 1960s and 70s. His daughter affirms that her father put out countless fires in homes that contained asbestos, and that inhaling the cancerous fibers was unavoidable.

His daughter remembers the first few times she started becoming concerned about her father’s health. In 1997, just five years after retiring, Rohrbacher’s daughter noticed him outside, staring into space at a family New Year’s party. Usually he was the center of attention and extremely outgoing. She asked him what was wrong, and when he responded it seemed like someone else was talking to her.

In the ensuing days and weeks, Rohrbacher started showing additional signs of decline: getting lost easily, forgetting simple tasks, and suffering bad falls. After a particularly bad fall landed him in the hospital, doctors discovered the true source of his suffering. They found cancer in his lungs, which had steadily and silently spread to his brain. They attempted neurosurgery, but it had spread too far and they were unable to remove the tumor. He passed away just a few months later, in March 1998.

His daughter knew that her father’s Captain at the fire department had also died from lung cancer, and started doing her own research. She found that firemen get cancer at nearly twice the rate of the general population, and that chemicals, including asbestos, remain airborne even after the fire is extinguished. Her father had never smoked cigarettes, and had no history cancer in his family. To her, his lung cancer diagnosis did not make sense unless it was connected in some way to his 30-year career as a fireman.

She also found that, not only did firemen not have access to breathing apparatuses and safety equipment, but their uniforms contained asbestos themselves. Their boots, helmets, coats and pants were all manufactured using asbestos because it could withstand high levels of heat and, as a natural resource, it was relatively inexpensive.

There are more than one million paid and volunteer firefighters in the United States, although it is unknown how many have passed away from asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. In 2010, California passed the William Dallas Jones Cancer Presumption Act (AB 2253), which makes it easier for firemen to prove that their cancer diagnosis was job-related. Firefighters previously had to prove that their illness was contracted during the time they were employed, or up to five years from their last day of work. The Presumption Act extended that period of time to ten years.

This is particularly relevant to victims of asbestos exposure, as related diseases take anywhere between 20 and 50 years to develop in the body. Case in point: Rohrbacher was first exposed to airborne asbestos in 1964, but did not develop lung cancer until 1997. Since this was only five years after his last day of work, he would have had been applicable to receive workers’ compensation benefits under the William Dallas Jones Cancer Presumption Act.

Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm have decades of experience advocating on behalf of workers exposed to dangerous chemicals on the job. If you or a loved one developed an illness from asbestos exposure, or any other occupationally-exposed chemical, you have important legal rights, and may be entitled to significant compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

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