Spurred by growing concerns about cancer among former Anne Arundel firefighters, state and county health officials have contracted with a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist to investigate possible links between past working conditions and the reported illnesses.
Several former firefighters have speculated that their illnesses are connected to the burning of toxic transformer oil at the county's fire training academy in the 1970s and 1980s, said Kenneth Berman, an attorney representing some firefighters.
After six months examining cancer cases involving former firefighters, the county's health officer asked for help from state officials two weeks ago.
"Given the limitations of the resources available to us, we will be unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion to this inquiry," wrote Katherine P. Farrell, the county's acting health officer, in a June 16 letter to the state. "We are referring this issue to you for your consideration as the implications of such findings could affect the lives of firefighters and their families, occupational safety regulations, workers' compensation and other issues more appropriately addressed on the state and federal levels."
State officials in turn asked Hopkins cancer expert Jonathan M. Samet to investigate. The review was first reported by The Capital in Annapolis .
Samet said he and his research team will spend the next six months combing through previous studies on cancer among firefighters, gathering more information about the specific cases in question and examining overall cancer trends in Anne Arundel County.
He said the team will then decide whether the issue merits a more in-depth study that might include interviews with all surviving county firefighters.
Samet said he has encountered links between employment conditions and waves of cancer but said some cancer "clusters" are also coincidental. Some studies from other areas have shown elevated rates of cancer among firefighters, though the differences between firefighters and the general population are often statistically insignificant.
A spokeswoman for County Executive Janet S. Owens referred questions to fire and health officials.
Anne Arundel fire officials said they will wait for the study to be completed before commenting, but they said they will co-operate fully with the investigation. "For us to [comment] at this time would be pure speculation," said Capt. Michael Cox of the Fire Department.
Some former firefighters believe that the illnesses are connected to the burning of coolants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at the training academy in Millersville. The federal government banned manufacture of PCBs in the late 1970s after finding that they caused cancer in lab animals.
David Fowler, a former instructor at the academy who is now gravely ill with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, told The Sun last spring that officials set fires in the basement and then asked firefighters to sit upstairs without masks to see how long they could stay inside while inhaling smoke.
"That was the idea, to have you choking," Fowler said. "That was the idea, to eat as much smoke as you could."
Fowler and other firefighters have said the fuel used to set fire to buildings and a pond was transformer oil donated by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. A 1980 article in The Sun about firefighters' health concerns said the county had used oil, probably from BGE and probably containing PCBs, at the academy. The article said firefighters pumped the oil from a holding tank into two diked areas and set them afire.
But the article said the concentrations of PCBs were below federal hazard standards, according to a lab study. A BGE spokeswoman said the company is aware of the issue and looking into it.
Fowler also said firefighters walked through drums containing flammable liquids.
"We didn't know these were cancer-causing agents," he said. A state workers' compensation commission ruled that Fowler's illness was work-related but did not specify a cause.
Berman, who is representing Fowler, said he's heard of about a dozen similar cases of cancer from the Anne Arundel Fire Department. "That is off the charts for a pretty small department," said Berman, who has worked with firefighters for 23 years.
The Anne Arundel County Fire Department has 629 employees.
County health officials said they first heard of the cancer concerns in November, when a woman called on behalf of her brother-in-law, a retired firefighter who had been found to have a brain tumor. She said she knew of three other firefighters with similar conditions.
County officials found previous studies showing elevated rates of brain cancer among firefighters but said they could not assemble enough data to establish links between fire department practices and cancer.
Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.