Mystery Building

If Station 31 isn't causing a high cancer rate among firefighters, what is?

They're angry about Mayor Greg Nickels' latest budget moves. Fire-engine staffing cuts have sparked union solicitation of donations possibly to oppose Nickels' re-election next year. But some Seattle firefighters were trying hard to be diplomatic about the mayor's claim last week that he's solved the mystery of Fire Station 31. The old brick firehouse at 1319 N. Northgate Way, suspected of emitting mysterious chemicals that might have led to fatal illnesses, wasn't killing its public servants after all, Nickels declared.

"A year ago I said that we will go wherever the scientific evidence takes us," the mayor said in a press announcement, "and not stop until both the experts, and my office, are satisfied that concerns about Station 31 have been addressed and dealt with. Today we've reached that point. All of the experts say that Station 31 is a safe place for firefighters to work. . . . [That] brings closure to this issue."

Well, case not exactly closed. Dennis Karl, a Station 31 firefighter who is also executive secretary of Seattle Firefighters Local 27, allows, "We are relieved that the building isn't the cause, and we're appreciative of the mayor's efforts." But, says Karl, also a member of an epidemiological panel that studied the station's health, "the general cause of the illnesses hasn't been resolved, and we still don't know how it may be related to the firefighting profession. We need more comprehensive medical screening. There is a minimum national standard for that, and the city doesn't meet it."

Still, Nickels might have won back some of the ill will he inspired at Station 31. He was reluctant to launch the health probe in the first place. And after he made that we-will-not-stop-until-we're-satisfied statement in October 2003, he appeared satisfied just six months later, even though the health review wasn't finished. In April, while a mayoral advisory panel, an epidemiological panel, and an industrial-hygiene consulting firm were halfway through the yearlong study, the mayor suddenly proclaimed Station 31 a chem-free zone. The firehouse, he breezily told reporters at a press conference announcing the appointment of new Chief Greg Dean, "has gotten a clean bill of health."

Wish it and it may come true. As the headline on a mayoral press release said last week, six months later: "Fire Station 31 Gets a Clean Bill of Health." At the circa-1975 station with a dirt basement floor, where more than 25 firefighters in recent years were reported to have been struck by cancer, all was now well, Nickels said.

It turns out, however, that firefighters who had assembled only anecdotal evidence to get the mayor's office interested in their concerns greatly underestimated the cancer toll. Of 1,622 members of the Seattle Fire Department who worked at Station 31 from 1975 through 2003, 119 of them suffered from the disease, according to a new state Department of Health report from the yearlong study. It's not clear how many of the 119 died, but firefighters suffered from higher rates of prostate cancer and melanoma of the skin compared to the average rates among residents of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties.

However, researchers concluded the report's findings were "consistent with other studies of firefighters" and the data "argue against a common exposure related to cancer-causing substances in the building."

The possibly toxic firehouse has been a sore point for Nickels, and he has long wanted to deep-six it as an issue. He illegally interfered in an original investigation of the station's health hazards, leading eventually to a $3,000 fine against City Hall by the state Department of Labor and Industries. His initial reluctance so inflamed Station 31 Capt. Bruce Amer that Amer made plans to abandon the firehouse, set up a tent city nearby, and embarrass the mayor into action. Nickels dodged that bullet by suddenly announcing a bold review of Station 31's environment. (See "Firehouse Theater," May 12.)

Prezant Associates, the environmental consultant hired to test for airborne, surface, and soil health hazards, appears to agree with the mayor's interpretation that Station 31 is not an ecological hot spot. "The building as a whole appears safe for general occupancy," the firm says in its 20- page report.

"However," Prezant cautions, "a few specific areas of the building were determined to contain lead above EPA recommended levels. This lead was present in soils in an open dirt area of the basement, and on walls and floors in several adjacent rooms. The soils should be covered or removed, and the walls and floors should be cleaned."

There are other caveats to the mayor's all-clear: bacterial samples, for example. Testing "indicated the presence of large numbers of bacteria in the dust," says Prezant. "Because these types of bacteria typically live in puddled water, and rain was observed to be penetrating the bricks in many locations, it is likely that the high bacterial levels in the dust are related to water getting into the building. The bricks should be sealed with a non- or low-volatile organic compound sealant to minimize water infiltration. Once the bricks are sealed, the white powdery deposits caused by transport of water through the brick should be cleaned, as the powder contains quartz, a type of silica," some of which, through overexposure, can cause lung disease.

"Residues of organochlorine pesticides," such as DDT, the report goes on, were "detected in the dirt in one indoor area and in two outdoor soil areas near the Station. The inside air should be tested for these types of pesticides and indoor dirt containing these contaminants should be cleaned. Several of the fluorescent light ballasts contain PCBs. While there is no immediate health risk, these types of ballasts sometime fail, causing the contamination of indoor areas with PCBs. The PCB ballasts should be replaced."

The survey also found a concentration of gasoline constituents and other solvent components in the open soil area of the basement at levels several times higher than that measured outdoors. The source of these components, says Prezant, "should be investigated further."

A mayoral advisory panel said in a February letter released by the mayor last week that it believed there was "little risk" to Station 31 personnel. But a closer read shows the panel's findings were based on incomplete studies. The limited studies "only help us understand current exposure risk [emphasis added]," the panel noted.

With the Station 31 stink still at least slightly detectable, there's now Nickels' Engine 21 problem. Because of a tight budget, the Greenwood station engine unit is being down-staffed by one, to three firefighters, creating the 10th three-person fire-attack unit in the city. Firefighters say having less manpower arriving on fire scenes, especially large blazes, endangers both them and the public. In a letter to rank and file, Local 27 calls it a "slippery slope" and urges union members to donate to a solidarity fund to campaign against the cutback.

Would those funds be used to support a mayoral opponent in 2005 if Nickels doesn't see the light? "That," says Local 27's Karl, "is a decision we'll have to make down the road."

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