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.And as with too many of these stories, researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted a small study but couldn't find any "definitive link" between the workers' exposure to cancer causing PCB's and the cancers that these men are suffering.
"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.
And how many times have we heard this type of story?
The old Dollhouse still sits on the grounds of the training academy, set against a sweep of forest behind fire headquarters. The academy opened in 1968. Firefighters from Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties, Annapolis, Fort Meade and the U.S. Naval Academy trained there, according to Ell.Fearing that the illnesses suffered by these firefighters may not be limited to Maryland, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) has called on the National Institute for Occupational Safety And Health (NIOSH) to "commence a study on the risk of cancer among firefighters." NIOSH has agreed to "an International Association of Fire Fighters initiative to implement a nationwide Hazardous Substance Training Program," but not yet to a full epidemiological study.
Starting in spring 1971, the academy accepted annual shipments of used transformer oil from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Trainers pumped oil into the Pit, a pool of water that would be set ablaze; the Christmas Tree, a rectangular steel structure that spat flame; and the Dollhouse.
"For days, you would just be blowing that stuff out of your nose," Fowler recalled.
Production of PCBs ceased in 1977 after the government declared the substance a carcinogen. Two years later, state officials detected PCBs in a tributary to the Severn River and traced them to the academy, which is near a creek bed.
Katherine Farrell, a state health official at the time, made inquiries and learned recruits "were very heavily exposed" to the tainted oil, "kind of wading around in it, breathing it, with and without respirators." She asked the county to warn its fire department.
The firefighters knew about PCBs and had asked the utility as early as 1976 whether the donated oil contained them. According to an internal department memo, BGE officials repeatedly told them the oil did not. One fire official cited in the memo said a BGE official in 1977 told him, "That stuff won't hurt you anyway, my guys wash their hands in it."
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