In the fight of their lives

Several current and former firefighters who trained at a Millersville facility in the '70s and '80s believe the cause of their cancer lies in chemicals used there.

August 01, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

David Fowler was a firefighter's firefighter, the last one to stop searching a burning house for people to save and the guy who once cradled a fatally injured child's head in his hands after a car crash.

He loved the job so much that he kept working even after he became convinced that exposure to cancer-causing chemicals during training in Millersville had caused his terminal lymphoma -- and similarly virulent diseases in firefighters across Anne Arundel County.

"There are so many," said Fowler, 50, lying on a hospital bed on the first floor of his Pasadena home, as he ticked off the names of dead and dying comrades. "And if you go back, we all trained at the camp, and we all got sick."

Working with a Gaithersburg attorney, Fowler and dozens of other current and former firefighters are trying to establish links between the apparent cluster of cancers and the burning of carcinogenic fuel during training in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Two families, including the Fowlers, have won workers' compensation cases, and attorney Kenneth Berman is exploring options for a larger-scale lawsuit.

Concern is widespread enough that county and state officials have contracted with a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist to study a possible link between the Arundel training activities and cancer.

Last weekend, one of the firefighters who had been working with Berman, Warren T. Daywalt of Annapolis, died of a brain tumor at age 52. County fire officials and union representatives are to meet with Hopkins doctors Wednesday.

"We're in a very murky area where there are so many unknowns," said County Executive Janet S. Owens. "But it's very sad."

The link between disease clusters and working conditions is a complex and emotional issue that has gained national attention. Class action lawsuits related to chemicals such as benzene and vinyl chloride have inspired powerful counterattacks from businesses, which argue they're being blamed unfairly and choked by liability costs.

Studies of fire departments, including those in Chicago and Seattle, have shown that firefighters face elevated cancer risks, but few, if any, have been able to link those risks to specific practices. Doctors generally are more comfortable attributing the illnesses to regular contact with toxic smoke and other dangerous substances.

"I would back away from trying to map cancers to specific one-time exposures," said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, a University of Maryland professor of medicine who serves as a consultant for the International Association of Firefighters. "Certainly, it could be a contributing factor, though."

Jonathan Samet, the Hopkins epidemiologist who will supervise the study, has said it will be difficult to establish a scientific connection between sick firefighters and specific working conditions.

Without such evidence, liability lawsuits are frivolous, many say.

"They should have real solid evidence that there's a link before moving forward with any legal action," said Gretchen Schaefer, spokeswoman for the American Tort Reform Association, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works to limit class action and other damage suits.

Arundel firefighters trace their concerns to the department's use of donated fuels -- some containing chemicals called PCBs that were banned by the federal government as possible carcinogens -- during routine training in Millersville decades ago.

Fowler said that when he was found to have non-Hodgkins lymphoma seven years ago, he wondered how a healthy man in his 40s could be struck so suddenly -- and thought back to training in the 1970s.

He and others have described a facility where young firefighters charged into smoke-filled structures without breathing masks, determined to see who could keep his wits the longest without the use of oxygen.

Roger Simonds, an instructor at the academy in those years who went on to become fire chief, said his mentors in Millersville almost never donned self-contained breathing aids.

`How things were done'

"That was just how things were done back then," said Simonds, who recently stepped down as chief.

McDiarmid agreed that few firefighters in the country wore masks in the 1970s and said firefighters from that era were exposed to more risks than those who trained more recently.

Simonds said trainees worked with flammable liquids for one of the 12 weeks they trained at the beginning of their careers.

Some days, they confronted the "Christmas Tree," a metal training device that spewed flaming fuel into a cramped metal room. Other days, they faced the pit, a pool of water covered with a few inches of fuel and set ablaze. Sometimes they plunged into a basement containing pans of oil that had been torched.

Fowler described an activity in which instructors set a fire in the basement of a structure called the "doll house" and sent the trainees to the top floor, where they sat without masks for as long as possible.

"The idea was to eat as much smoke as you could, to build resistance," Fowler recalled.

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