A team of doctors from Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore will soon begin an investigation into reproductive problems among families of certain Baltimore firefighters.

The Du Pont Co. is providing $125,000 for the study, largely in an attempt to disprove some firefighters' suspicions that the company's high-gloss IMRON paint is responsible for a series of miscarriages and premature births. The firefighters commonly used the paint during idle periods to touch up their equipment.

"It's obvious something happened," said Du Pont spokesman Dick Hamilton. "But we don't think it's IMRON and we didn't want IMRON implicated without a study."

From 1982 to 1984, firefighters on the C shift at the North Avenue Engine Company fathered eight babies, including three sets of twins. All of the babies were miscarried or born hopelessly premature, and all died. During that time, a female paramedic on another shift gave birth to premature twins who did survive, despite serious complications.

The dozen firefighters on the C shift, backed by the International Firefighters Union Local 704, believe that ethoxyethanol, a compound in IMRON, is to blame. Researchers have found that ethoxyethanol causes certain reproductive problems in laboratory animals. However, the problems were identified as sterility and infertility rather than a tendency toward premature births.

In April, the fire department removed the paint from all 57 of its firehouses, although no specific link has been found and there is no scientific evidence to tie the paint to the firefighters' problem.

"We still believe IMRON is the cause," union president Jeffrey DeLisle said last week, "but we're not ruling out that it could be something else."

DeLisle said the C-shift firefighters at the North Avenue firehouse tended to use more of the paint than others.

The study, which may take more than a year, is headed by Dr. Melvin Tockman, an associate professor at the hospital's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, and Dr. Susan Berg, a fellow at the center. They will begin, Berg said, with a questionnaire to determine just how many of the city's 1,900 firefighters and their families have experienced problems.

Several agencies will be monitoring the study, including the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board and the Environmental Protection Agency. Du Pont has agreed to remain detached from the study, aside from providing the funding.

"This type of investigation is really difficult to perform but it's important," Berg said last week. "It's difficult because reproductive toxicology is an area that has not been looked at very much.

"We have a very unusual case here," she said, "because we have seen an effect -- reports of allegedly high numbers of premature births or miscarriages -- but we have no clear idea of what is causing it."