Study of cancer in firefighters inconclusive

Wider investigation is urged to find causes

July 29, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County firefighters have a "somewhat greater" risk of developing cancer than the general public, but the health problems of 17 firefighters who contracted at least one form of cancer could not be directly linked to training methods at the fire academy in Millersville, the Johns Hopkins University public health officials said yesterday.

A 10-month study, released yesterday, said that county firefighters who trained in Millersville between 1971 and 1979 were exposed to cancer-causing PCBs when the Fire Department burned waste oil for exercises.

But Johns Hopkins researchers said that based on the $25,000 study, which was conducted at the request of the county and state, they could not say exposure to the burned fuel led to the cancer cases. Similar studies in Chicago and Seattle have also found an elevated cancer risk among firefighters but no link to specific practices.

Medical researchers stressed that their study was limited in scope, and they recommended a broader look at cancer cases among the thousands of firefighters who trained at the facility. Fire recruits from Annapolis and Howard and Prince George's counties also trained in Millersville, but the 43-page report only covered Anne Arundel personnel.

The results "speak to the need to do a formal study. ... We have a very incomplete picture," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the lead investigator and chairman of the epidemiology department at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The report illustrates the difficulty in proving a "cancer cluster," a higher-than-expected occurrence of cancer based on a particular environmental factor in a working or living condition. Establishing such connections is extremely rare, in part because the duration and frequency of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals differs greatly among people.

Kenneth Berman, a Gaithersberg attorney, said he knows of nearly 90 firefighters - all of whom trained at the Millersville site - who have contracted cancer, skin diseases or other serious conditions.

He has helped win workers' compensation cases for at least two families and is pursuing others.

Berman said the state should not hesitate to fund a more involved study. "It's clearly what the state should do, and if it doesn't, the legislature should prod them to do so," he said.

Dr. Michelle Gourdin, deputy secretary for public health services at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was uncertain that a more expensive study would produce more conclusive results.

She pointed to what she said was low participation by Anne Arundel firefighters and the difficulty of finding a root cause to some cancer cases as evidence that another study is unnecessary.

Anne Arundel fire officials have similar reservations, said Battalion Chief Frank R. Stamm, a department spokesman, but they "will defer to the experts."

Cindy Fowler, whose husband, David, is a former firefighter who has terminal lymphoma, said she was disappointed by the scope of the study.

"It's not that I didn't accept it," she said, speaking of the researchers' findings. "But I am disappointed that this wasn't a complete study."

Fowler criticized the suggestion that ill firefighters were unwilling to help research. She said another study is worth doing considering the number of cancer-stricken firefighters she knows.

The study was prompted by current and former firefighters who said they had noticed many cancers in their ranks in recent years.

Some speculated that the illnesses were connected to the burning of carcinogenic transformer oil during training exercises in the 1970s.

A 1980 article in The Sun said the oil was donated by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and contained PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

The federal government banned the manufacture of PCBs in 1977 because they were found to cause cancer in lab animals, though they were not specifically linked to cancer in humans. The department reportedly stopped using the donated fuel in 1980 because of these concerns.

Last year, the county and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene asked Johns Hopkins to examine the firefighters' concerns.

Hopkins researchers found that of the 17 firefighters who reported having cancer, nearly half developed skin cancer. Two had brain cancer and three more had leukemia or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The ages of those stricken with cancer ranged from the 30s to the 70s, and all of them were male.

Samet said that most of the 17 contracted their cancers in the past decade, and several trained in Millersville well after the Fire Department ceased using the fuel with PCBs.

Hopkins researchers relied upon ill firefighters and their families to come forward with information, as well as analyzing numerous cancer studies of firefighters and chemicals that were used in Millersville.

Samet said the difficulty in tracking down cancer-stricken Anne Arundel firefighters contributed to numerous gaps in the research. For example, researchers did not investigate firefighters who may have already died of cancer.

Berman acknowledged that "cancer clusters are extremely difficult to ever prove," but he said the preponderance of cancer cases speaks to a knowable cause.

Stamm said the department needs time to review the report before it acts, be it performing its own cancer screening or trying to determine how many of its former and current firefighters have contracted cancer. .

"Our concern deals with determining the cause of the cancer," he said. "We are worried about our people."

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