Johns Hopkins epidemiologists explained last night their plans to study a possible cancer cluster in the Anne Arundel County Fire Department at a meeting with firefighters in Millersville.
Researchers said they will interview sick firefighters and their families, collect studies on cancer among firefighters and examine the chemicals firefighters were exposed to at the county fire academy in Millersville.
They said they will submit a report to state health officials in March and might recommend a longer, more detailed study.
"This is a small study that might lead to something larger," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Current and former county firefighters say they have noticed many virulent cancers in their ranks in recent years. They have speculated that the illnesses are connected to the burning of carcinogenic transformer oil during exercises at the county's fire training academy in Millersville in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Hopkins study will focus primarily on firefighters who trained at the academy and have brain cancer, Samet said.
It's unclear how many firefighters who trained in Millersville have been stricken with cancer. But dozens have contacted Gaithersburg attorney Kenneth Berman, who has helped win workers' compensation cases for two families and is pursuing other cases.
Last night, several firefighters in the crowd of about 75 said they were worried the current study isn't comprehensive enough.
"I'm telling you, everybody has a general concern, not just Anne Arundel County," said Doug Simpkins Jr., who has been a county firefighter for 31 years.
Firefighters from Annapolis, Prince George's County, Howard County and other jurisdictions also trained at the Millersville facility.
"This presentation kind of indicates the study is not of the whole picture," said Shawna Gunter, whose husband, Jeffrey, an Annapolis firefighter, has received a diagnosis of Hodgkins lymphoma.
After listening to Simpkins, Gunter and others, Samet said he would like to collect data from firefighters who worked in other jurisdictions but trained at Millersville. He said researchers will be relying on ill firefighters and their families to make contact.
"We need you to come to us," he said.
Hopkins doctors, who were asked to study the issue by state and county health officials, hope to develop a more complete census of cancer cases in the fire department.
Doctors have warned that it will be difficult for them to prove a connection between the cancer cases and training practices at the academy. Samet said he has encountered links between employment conditions and waves of cancer but that other cancer clusters are coincidental.
Studies of fire departments, including those in Chicago and Seattle, have found 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.
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.
Firefighters say they often did not know where the fuels came from, but a 1980 article in The Sun said the oil was donated by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and contained polychlorinated biphenyls.
The federal government banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1977 because the chemicals were found to cause cancer in lab animals, though they were not specifically linked to cancer in humans. According to the 1980 article, fire administrators stopped using the transformer oil from BGE that year because of concerns about PCBs.