Anne Arundel County fire officials, long worried about what appeared to be a high rate of cancer in their ranks, say they welcome the state health department's decision to investigate the matter.

"I sure would like to know, like so many of our members, if there are any particular links between anything we've been doing here and these cancers," said Keith Wright of the firefighters' union. "Or if it's just a fluke."

The Anne Arundel County Health Department recently asked the state for help in studying the cancer rate among county firefighters. Some fire officials have estimated that as many as 20 Anne Arundel firefighters have been killed by the disease over the past decade and that about 20 current and former firefighters are battling it.

Many in the department think there could be a link between cancer and a kind of oil the department used in the late 1970s and early 1980s to ignite fires for training exercises. The oil contained small amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed a probable human carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent.

The state has hired a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist to head the investigation. His probe is expected to take six months.

3 Schools Off, 5 Schools On

Three Anne Arundel County schools have been taken off a list of state schools the Maryland Department of Education says need improvement.

Georgetown East Elementary, Harman Elementary and Park Elementary were removed from the list after making progress for the second year in a row on state reading and math exams known as the Maryland School Assessments.

The exams are an outgrowth of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that all schools be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Each year, Maryland requires an increasing number of passing student test scores on the MSAs for a school to be considered successful. If one subgroup of students fails, the school fails. The subgroups consist of racial groups, disabled students, low-income students and students who speak English as a second language.

Three other Anne Arundel schools made enough progress on the test this year that they will be removed from the "needs improvement" list if they perform well again next year. Those schools are Tyler Heights Elementary, Freetown Elementary and Van Bokkelen Elementary.

Five schools, however, failed to make progress on the test for the second consecutive year. As a result, they have been added to the list.

They are Waugh Chapel Elementary, Lindale Middle, Meade Middle, Annapolis Middle and Meade High.

Three schools -- Belle Grove Elementary, Chesapeake Bay Middle and Arundel Middle -- were placed on alert after failing to make progress on the test this year.

If they do not make progress again next year, they will be placed on the "needs improvement" list.

Twenty-three schools were taken off alert status after an increasing number of their students passed the test this year.

Schools on the list face a range of consequences from the state, which could step in for corrective action or even take over.

Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.