June, 2004 Health Beat

By Mary Jane Dittmar

Environmental Toxicity: The Evidence Mounts, Part 1
It cannot be said too often: It is crucial that you wear appropriate respiratory protection at all responses until it has been determined beyond a doubt that the environment is safe. This statement applies to overhaul and fire inspection operations as well.

And, as the following information underscores, you must be vigilant and accurate in documenting the details (response, location, date, time, substances to which you think you may have been exposed, any symptoms you suffered (even after you leave the scene), whether you were medically evaluated, any treatment received, and any other information your department policies and government regulations may require. Failing to fully document these events can cause you great financial distress in the future should you incur health problems. Remember, adverse effects from these exposures may not become evident for 10, 15, or 20-plus years, often after you have retired, such as in the case of the 1975 New York Telephone Co. fire, discussed below.

1975 New York Telephone Co. Fire
Dozens of New York City firefighters who responded to the New York Telephone Co. fire in 1975 have died of various forms of cancer and many more are battling cancer today, according to a March 14 report in New York City’s Daily News. In one case, an expert in chemical toxins at a prominent New York City hospital wrote a letter identifying the fire as a factor in the leukemia of a retired NYC firefighter currently actively engaged in the fire service as a trainer and instructor.

The cancers have taken more than 20 years on average to appear. Unfortunately, NYC has no documented medical data for those firefighters who fought the New York Telephone Co. fire. The record folders of these firefighters are identified only with a red “Telephone Fire” stamp.

Fire Department of New York’s Dr. Kerry Kelly says it is difficult to single out one fire [as the cause of a specific health problem]. “Every time a firefighter goes on a run, he is exposed,” she adds.

FDNY spokesperson Frank Gribbon noted that FDNY is better prepared for toxic hazards today than in 1975. Gribbon says that going into a fire without your mask is more rare today than during the time of the telephone fire.

The 1975 fire, in a phone switching station in a high-rise on 14th Street, occurred after midnight, lasted 16 hours, and went to five alarms. It involved more than 100 tons of PVC wire sheathing. Among the known contaminants in the smoke and fumes were hydrochloric acid, benzene, and vinyl chloride.

Accumulated hydrocarbon gas exploded and knocked firefighters out the structure onto the pavement. Other firefighters used up their air cylinders and had to inhale the toxins as they escaped in the dense, black smoke.

Reports of widespread cancers among retirees began surfacing in the mid-1990s. Under an order by Former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, an investigation was begun. In 1997, FDNY interviewed 239 men who reported sick after the fire. More than half of the questionnaires were returned. It was found that 18 firefighters had died, seven from cancer. Their average age was 50. Six of the seven had worked in the units that responded first to the fire. WNYF, the magazine of FDNY, in 1999 spoke of an “apparent cancer cluster among the first-due companies” but said it may have been be too early to see this “convincingly.”

FDNY did not share its survey results with firefighters or with the media.

Since 1990, the fire’s death toll appears to have more than doubled (there has been no official count); many men in their early 60s lost their lives. One of the first responders said in the newspaper report that “virtually every firefighter who responded to the phone fire’s first two alarms has cancer.”

An environmental health expert for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, told the Daily News she has no doubt that PVC and the Telephone Co. fire caused a cancer cluster. She added that she had seen patterns already in the early 1980s, when she studied ailments among the firefighters who responded to the Phone Co. fire.

A New York law in the 1990s has assumed that any firefighter’s cancer is work-related. The firefighter gets a disability pension of 75 percent of his pay. If the cancer is not diagnosed until after retirement, the firefighter gets nothing.

Many firefighters believe that that law should be reevaluated.

One FDNY Phone Co. first responder who has had bronchitis for many years observed that he “was treated pretty well while he was still working.” After he retired, he said it was like, “Goodbye, see you later.” “Three decades after an infamous New York Telephone Co. blaze, cancer ravages heroes,” Special Report by Bob Port, Daily news, March 14, 2004, 6-7.

WTC Responders File Lawsuits
One cannot even imagine the health and wellness toll that will ultimately be exacted from the responders to the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks and the Ground Zero recovery operations. In this case, adverse health effects became evident in a much shorter time, when compared with the Telephone Co. fire.

According to newspaper reports, more than 1,700 firefighters and police officers have filed lawsuits against New York City on the basis that they became ill as a result of working at the WTC site and the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, where the WTC collapse debris was transported. Among the health problems cited were cancer, asthma, airway disorders and other lung afflictions. “Suits Link Ground Zero Toxins, Illnesses,” www.chicagotribune.com, May 24, 2004

It had been previously reported that hundreds of FDNY firefighters retired after 9-11 because of ill health or injury.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has awarded $81 million in grants for a five-year health-screening program for firefighters, workers, and volunteers who “provided rescue, recovery, and restoration services at the World Trade Center 9/11 disaster.” The grants are an extension of the 2002 DHHS funding of clinical examinations in which all of the 11,000 New York City firefighters and about 11,000 other rescue workers received initial medical examinations. Six institutions will provide free standardized clinical examinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will administer the grants. Additional information is at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/hhs-03-18-04.html/.

These are only two responses, and their potential health hazards are fairly well known. What about all those daily calls that don’t make the newspapers? Their hazard potential and ultimate health effects can be just as devastating and lethal for responders. You cannot forget that. You must “respect” those hazards just as you must respect that spreading fire or truss roof.

The fire investigator perspective will be discussed in the next column.

Do you have a health or safety tip or story to share? Is there an issue you’d like to see covered? Contact maryjd@pennwell.com or call (973) 251-5052.

Mary Jane Dittmar is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering magazine, fireEMS, and FireEngineering.com. Before joining the magazine in 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.

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