Probe launched after 2 environmental workers get brain cancer

March 23, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

The state health department is investigating whether conditions at a Baltimore office building may have led to brain cancer in two former environmental officials.

The two men had nearby offices on the second floor of a laboratory tower on Preston Street during the 1980s. Today, they both wonder if samples of hazardous waste that were analyzed on the floors below and above them caused their rare form of cancer. The labs in the seven-story Herbert R. O'Conor Building have been cited before by state environmental inspectors for incorrectly storing and disposing of wastes.

One of the men, a 47-year-old attorney, became ill two years ago with the first of five brain tumors. The second man, 44, was diagnosed only a month ago after suffering headaches and vision problems. Both men, who have left state government, asked not to be identified.

Dr. Genevieve M. Matanoski, an epidemiologist hired by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said it will take months to determine whether the two cases are a bizarre coincidence or something more.

"It is at least worth an investigation," she said, "because it is a disease that could have an environmental exposure and because it is not as common as one would think."

Only six people in a population of 100,000 will be diagnosed each year with brain cancer, compared with about 70 or 80 cases a year for lung or breast cancer. Petrochemicals, high-voltage power lines and infections are all suspected to cause brain cancer in adults, said Dr. Matanoski, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

It is unlikely that brain cancer would appear in two co-workers, said Walter Stewart, a Hopkins epidemiologist who is not involved in the investigation. "But it could have occurred by chance alone," he said.

The victims think differently. "I believe it is not coincidence," said the younger cancer patient. "I think the building needs to be taken apart and put back together or someone needs to check every vent."

Health officials acknowledge that some of the 350 workers in the tower have complained of odd smells over the years. As a safety feature, the building was designed so that only fresh air circulates through it and each floor ventilates its own stale air.

But the chief of one of the building's laboratories said people in his lab periodically smelled ether and other compounds that were being used in a lab six floors away. Despite complaints, he said, the problem continued for many years.

In 1986, an assistant attorney general accused lab workers of dumping waste down the drain, burning it and stuffing it in trash bins. The lab director denied the allegations, adding that hazardous waste laws did not apply because the labs generated such small quantities. State records appear to show an investigation went no further.

In 1990, the health department laboratories were cited by the Maryland Department of the Environment after an inspection turned up 10 drums of toxic chemicals -- such as cyanide and PCBs -- that were waste from the labs and that had been stored illegally for years. The health department has since properly disposed of the waste.

Today, waste is hauled away by a licensed contractor, said Joseph P. Libonati, deputy director of the health department's Laboratories Office.

The two cancer patients worked for several years in an environmental crime unit of 80 lawyers, state troopers, inspectors and hazardous waste regulators on the second floor of the laboratory building. Those employees moved out in 1987 when the Department of the Environment became a separate agency.

Many of them are responsible for calming the fears of people who live around toxic waste dumps, said Ronald Nelson, deputy secretary of the Department of the Environment.

"But there is always something that comes up in the back of your mind," Mr. Nelson said. To one of the cancer patients, that connection is inescapable. With a trace of bitterness, he said, "It was our job to go out and make the world safe."

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