Tracing Cancer's Cause

Retired firefighter Dave Fowler, 52, with granddaughter Gabriella and wife Cindy, found out he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1997.
Retired firefighter Dave Fowler, 52, with granddaughter Gabriella and wife Cindy, found out he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1997. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dave Fowler spent a week in winter 1974 learning to fight fires inside a blackened structure called the Dollhouse. Trainers filled the basement with spent transformer oil and hay, and set them ablaze. Twenty trainees sat upstairs and ate smoke until they were about to vomit or pass out.

"It was like a macho thing -- who was the last one standing," Fowler recalled.

These days, Fowler feels as though he's the last one standing. Thirty friends from the Anne Arundel County Fire Department have died of cancer. Fowler's 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, lost the vision in her left eye to cancer as a baby. And he is dying of lymphoma.

At least 120 firefighters who graduated from the fire training academy in Millersville between 1968 and 1985 have been diagnosed with cancer, and at least 40 have died, according to a Montgomery County legal team that is assembling a potential case.

The firefighters believe they are a classic cancer cluster. A wave of premature deaths triggered memories of oil burned and fumes inhaled at the academy in the 1970s. The trainees didn't know then that the oil contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, compounds later found to cause cancer.

But linking cancer to its cause is notoriously difficult, particularly among firefighters, who breathe toxins whenever they fight fires. A Johns Hopkins University researcher spent most of a year on a limited study of the Anne Arundel firefighters and found nothing conclusive.

The firefighters, joined by the Hopkins expert and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), seek a definitive study. More than that, though, they want help: cancer screenings for the healthy, medical coverage for the sick, burial for the dead.

A man of 20 has a 1 percent chance of contracting cancer by age 40 and a 3 percent chance by 50. Among the 2,000 recruits who trained at the fire academy between 1968 and 1985, most of whom were in their twenties, about 5 percent have contracted cancer, according to research by Cindy Ell, a retired firefighter who keeps a database of victims.

"Every time we bury somebody else, it creates a lot of anger and a lot of emotion," said Ell, a Delaware resident who has emerged as the Erin Brockovich of Anne Arundel firefighters. Much like the film and real-life heroine, Ell has almost single-handedly built a case for the firefighters while working for a lawyer sympathetic to her cause.

Accounts vary on exactly when the Anne Arundel firefighters came to regard PCBs as a ticking oncologic time bomb. Some say it was the day in 1997 that Fowler, then 43 and a robust engine driver, received his diagnosis.

Fowler started volunteering at the firehouse at age 16 and graduated from the academy at 21, just before Christmas 1974. He married a woman whose mother volunteered in the fire department's ladies' auxiliary. He returned to the academy at least four times as a trainer, each time exposing himself to tainted oil.

In 1989, the Fowlers noticed a change in their 18-month-old daughter: Her left eye seemed to protrude. Doctors found a malignant tumor. Amanda survived the cancer, called rhabdomyosarcoma, but lost some of her vision.

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