Updated: 05-19-2006 03:03:20 PM


PHILLIP McGOWAN
The Baltimore Sun


May 18--A federal safety agency announced yesterday that it would fund a training program to analyze the cancer risk to firefighters exposed to toxins, an issue highlighted by a cluster of illnesses among Anne Arundel County firefighters who trained at an academy in Millersville in the 1970s.

County officials said the effort by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health falls short of a request by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski for a full-blown study.

But they hope NIOSH's decision to launch a national Hazardous Substance Training Program - which will determine whether firefighters' exposure to toxins raises their long-term risk for some cancers, including brain cancer, and heart disease - in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Fighters will build momentum toward a cancer study that would include the Anne Arundel County fire service.

"I'm very pleased," said Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell.

A study released last year by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health uncovered 17 cancer cases among the county's Fire Department ranks but could not determine whether they were linked to training methods at the fire academy in Millersville between 1971 and 1979.

Blackwell said the unanswered questions surrounding the 10-month, $25,000 Hopkins study required "some kind of federal attention. It appears we have that now. We want to be helpful to the researchers to help get answers to these questions."

"Firefighters and their families already understand the hazards of being on the job, whether it is rushing into a burning building or responding to a chemical spill," Mikulski said in a statement. "I believe that they have the right to know the potential health hazards of simply reporting for duty. That is why this research is so important - it could potentially save lives."

Firefighters union officials and families of firefighters with cancer have been critical of the findings of the Hopkins study. They have said that a list of nearly 90 firefighters who either died or are suffering from cancer or skin diseases - all of whom went through Millersville - was not included in the Hopkins study.

The study determined that Anne Arundel County firefighters have a "somewhat greater" risk of developing cancer than the general public.

Critics of the study contended that it produced incomplete results, and a majority of the county's legislative delegation called on the General Assembly to fund a more comprehensive review.

But the State Council on Cancer Control, a body of cancer experts, concluded that a federal review would be the best approach, in part because it could measure a larger population.

Kenneth Berman, a Gaithersburg attorney who has represented Anne Arundel firefighters with cancer, praised Mikulski's petitioning for a federal response. That effort, along with the results of recent national studies that link exposure to toxins to cancer, has motivated NIOSH to react, he said.

Berman said that while NIOSH has not agreed to a full epidemiological study, the federal agency "is turning its attention to the type of research that the families and firefighters have been seeking."

A full epidemiological study, which could cost several hundred thousand dollars at a minimum, according to cancer experts, would more fully determine whether spikes in cancer cases would amount to a cancer cluster.

Berman said NIOSH's response could lead to a broader study. "It's a first step, and a very positive step," he said.

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