More study urged on firefighters' cancer

Patients, families ask state health officials for further investigation

August 11, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Firefighters from several area counties -- some of them suffering from cancer -- and their families urged state health officials last night to find out whether chemicals they were exposed to in training at Millersville in the 1970s -- and possibly beyond -- might be responsible for the disease.

"How many have to get sick and die? Do you need to see another death certificate?" Shawna Gunter, 28, of Shady Side, asked at a meeting with the Johns Hopkins University public health investigators involved in a study of the cancers. "I have two kids and no guarantee that I'll have a husband."

Her husband, Jeffrey Gunter, 29, is an Anne Arundel County firefighter whose cancer was diagnosed last year.

Shawna Gunter was among about 40 people who sat in an auditorium at Lindale Middle School in Linthicum to discuss the results of the 10-month study with the researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The 43-page report, made public July 28, established that firefighters training at Anne Arundel County Fire Department's Millersville fire academy were exposed to PCBs -- a chemical shown to cause cancer in animals. The study also said firefighters in general have a higher risk of cancer than the general population.

"This is where you start when you are trying to understand what the problem is," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the lead investigator and chairman of the epidemiology department at the Hopkins Bloomberg school.

A large-scale study would be needed to establish a definitive link between the conditions at the training facility and cancer cases, Samet said. Such a report would track all of the people who trained at Millersville -- about 1,000 -- and could cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars," he estimated.

"You mentioned the magic word; it is money," said Doug Simpkins Jr., an Anne Arundel County firefighter for three decades. In his academy class of about 50, he said, three have died of cancer and five others have been diagnosed with it.

Simpkins said he is healthy, but he goes to his doctor often. And he said he will push hard for a broader study. "Whose door do we need to knock on?" he asked.

Several members of the General Assembly attended the meeting, including Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican who is running for county executive. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll find the money," Leopold said.

The report focused on 25 Anne Arundel firefighters. The Millersville facility where they trained was also used by firefighters from other jurisdictions.

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