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Firefighters Seeking Wider Cancer Study

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page PG03

A group of area firefighters recently told an expert studying what they say is an increased cancer rate in their ranks that he should expand his inquiry to neighboring jurisdictions, including Prince George's County.

The firefighters from Anne Arundel County fear that their cancer cases are linked to an oil used to ignite fires at a Millersville training facility in the late 1970s and 1980s. The oil was laced with small amounts of polychlorinated biphenyl, commonly known as PCB. Although the facility was located in and used by Anne Arundel County, it was also a training site for firefighters from elsewhere in the region, including Howard and Prince George's counties and Annapolis.

"Why aren't these people being considered in the study?" asked John Miller, who has been an Anne Arundel firefighter for 35 years.

Jonathan Samet, of the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he would be interested in speaking with firefighters from other jurisdictions who worked at the training facility and have cancer.

Samet added that his ongoing investigation is preliminary and therefore somewhat limited. But he said it could lead to a larger, more comprehensive probe that could involve firefighters from surrounding counties.

"We have a limited amount of time and a big job to do," he said.

Samet was hired in June by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to conduct a nine-month investigation into the cancer rates of Anne Arundel firefighters. He hosted a public meeting last month at Old Mill High School to update the firefighters on the status of the investigation and to ask for volunteers to tell about their experiences at the training site.

At least 30 county firefighters have died of cancer since the late 1970s, according to Cindy Ell, a former firefighter who works in a law firm representing some of the families. She said almost 30 other current and former firefighters are battling the disease.

"The numbers are still continuing to increase. That's the scary part about this," said Ell, who is compiling a database of the illnesses.

"There haven't been a lot of weeks where I don't get a new report."

Samet said that he has spent the last few months reviewing cancer studies and scientific evidence and that he is ready to start interviewing firefighters who have cancer.

"What we're really trying to do is understand what is common to these people who have cancer," he said. "It's trying to explain who they are and what they were exposed to."

Doug Simpkins Jr., an Anne Arundel firefighter, said he was glad someone is finally paying attention to the problem.

"We've lost too many, too fast, and nothing's been done," he said. "We've seen a large part of our population coming down with this."

Simpkins said that Samet should have no problem finding firefighters to interview. "I guarantee you, after tonight's meeting, the word is going to get out."


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