CDC INVESTIGATING FIREFIGHTERS UNIFORM PANTS AS POSSIBLE CAUSE OF ILLNESS
Sunday, January 11, 2009
According to the Palm Beach Post, Boca Raton Fire Capt. John Luca was gutting it out, and it showed. At 41, the veteran firefighter looked used up. His voice was small and hoarse. He slept eight hours a night and woke feeling drained. Luca chalked it up to stress. He was tough, he told himself. He could handle it.
But after years of exhaustion, after a strange trembling settled in his fingers and paralysis gripped his toes and a weakened leg made him struggle to climb the stairs, Luca, now 43, finally asked for help. He could barely walk as he checked himself into a hospital, convinced he was stricken by some terrible degenerative disease
Long after that day in December 2007, after a series of medical tests and doctor consultations only deepened the mystery surrounding his decline, Luca, president of the Boca Raton firefighters union, IAFF Local 1560, realized some of his fellow city firefighters were almost as sick as he was.
After forming a union committee in September and consulting a Boca Raton doctor, Luca and some of the firefighters came to an alarming conclusion: Their fire-resistant uniform pants were poisoning them.
"There's no doubt that the pants caused us to be sick," said Luca, who estimated at least 50 Boca Raton firefighters were showing symptoms of heavy-metal poisoning linked to flame retardant in the pants. "I think it's widespread."
Luca, his doctor, and other current and former firefighters said the cause of the problems is antimony - a heavy metal related to arsenic and a key ingredient in the FireWear pants the department required firefighters to wear for more than 15 years as part of their everyday uniforms.
City officials, though, refused to process at least 30 workers compensation claims, even while bending, in October, to the union's demand for plain cotton uniform pants. Instead, the city contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which opened an investigation into the fire-resistant pants on Monday.
"We don't have any evidence of a safety issue, but out of an abundance of caution we have changed out the pants while the matter is being investigated," Deputy City Manager George Brown said. "We have no evidence that there's any link between the pants and heavy-metal poisoning."
A representative of the Cincinnati-based company that sells FireWear clothing, Fechheimer Brothers, said firefighters nationwide have been wearing the pants for more than 15 years
"To our knowledge, the Boca Raton Fire Department is the only customer ever informing us of a sensitivity to the FireWear fabric," said Fred Heldman, the company's senior vice president, in a statement. "However, since the quality of our products and the safety of our customers are our top priorities, we have contacted the manufacturer that supplies the FireWear fabric to our company and others to gain a greater understanding of the concerns being raised."
Luca said most departments statewide issue plain cotton pants for everyday use. Brown said firefighters with at least two other Florida departments, in Tamarac and Hillsborough County, wear FireWear uniform pants. Both of those departments were cooperating with doctors in the federal probe, officials said.
Hillsborough fire Capt. George Sucarichi said his department, which started issuing the pants about six months ago, had yet to encounter problems. Tamarac Fire Chief Jim Budzinski, whose department has issued the pants for more than 10 years, said his firefighters never complained of symptoms.
"The whole concept behind those pants is to make our firefighters safer," Budzinski said. "If there's something happening that's negating that, we want to know and correct it."
In Boca Raton, Luca and others pulled on the uniform cargo pants, which were woven with fibers containing antimony and other chemicals, every workday for more than a decade. They wore the pants under heavier gear while fighting fires.
"It's a shame because the city should have said, 'We need to look into this,' " said Richard Sicking, a Miami workers compensation attorney representing the firefighters union. "It's sort of like an epidemic. Some people are sicker than others."
A hair analysis by Doctor's Data, a Chicago-based clinical laboratory, in July revealed about four times the acceptable level of antimony in Luca's body; less than 5 percent of people tested had higher levels, according to the lab report.
Dr. Leonard Haimes, a licensed physician who practices holistic medicine in Boca Raton, said Luca's uniform pants were the only possible source of the metal
"If you take normal people, and you check them for antimony in their bodies, you're not going to find it," Haimes said. "You have to have a source of exposure, and the source of exposure is self-evident: the pants that they've been wearing."
Jack McCartt, a former assistant fire chief in Boca Raton who was hired last summer as fire chief in Dania Beach, said he suffered tremors after wearing the FireWear pants for several years.
"There have been sporadic, numerous illnesses at the fire department that you've got to raise your eyebrows about," said McCartt, who teaches a hazardous materials course at the National Fire Academy. "I think the facts are pretty evident at this point, that they've got a long-term issue with a continuous exposure ... to antimony."
Other firefighters also say that for years the station houses of Boca Raton Fire-Rescue have been visited by strange and inexplicable ailments.
They say there was the former union president who was forced to undergo brain surgery, during which doctors found not the tumor they expected but cloudy cerebral spinal fluid; the battalion chief felled by a strange and rare form of belly cancer; the retiree whose heart was threatened by fluid, and three cardiologists couldn't say why; the captain who suffered crippling headaches; the firefighter tormented by an incurable rash; the handful of thyroid surgeries among young firefighters, who also complained of numbness or tingling in their hands or feet or whose testosterone levels were dramatically low; the recent rash of miscarriages by firefighters' wives.
Of 36 city firefighters tested for heavy-metal toxicity, 30 were found to have "very elevated" levels of antimony in their bodies, said Capt. Phil Santa Maria, chairman of the union committee formed to address health concerns.
"It's real, and it's dangerous," said Haimes, the Boca Raton doctor. "I really feel that these people should be treated. These guys put their lives on the line every day for us, and they got sucked into something here."
Boca Raton Assistant Fire Chief Raul Travieso, a 34-year veteran who says he has seen strange symptoms in some firefighters, said: "We're going to try and get to the bottom of this. Our people are our biggest asset, and we don't want to get them sick in any way."
Luca, though, said the union still is waiting to see how the city will respond.
"My concern right now is, are we going to get people treated?" Luca said. "Are we going to turn a blind eye to this?"
Subject: CDC INVESTIGATING FIREFIGHTERS UNIFORM PANTS AS POSSIBLE CAUSE OF ILLNESS