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Arsenic case turns to firefighters' lifestyle

Officials will focus on the diet and whereabouts of two firefighters who tested with high levels of arsenic in their blood.

By ANNE LINDBER
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003


PINELLAS PARK -- The investigation of elevated arsenic levels found in two firefighters will shift to the men's living habits, including what they have eaten recently and where they have been.

The investigation will include other firefighters at Pinellas Park Fire Station 33 if their blood tests come back with the same problem. Early results from those tests are negative, but fuller results aren't expected until later this week, fire Chief Ken Cramer said Tuesday.

The results could allow public health workers to focus their investigation better, said Elaine Fulton-Jones, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Health Department.

Concerns were raised last week after two firefighters discovered during their annual physicals that they had elevated levels of arsenic in their blood.

It is unclear how high the arsenic levels were because Pinellas Park officials consider that medical information, which is exempt from public disclosure. They also declined to name the firefighters, only saying the two had returned to work.

It also is unclear why the firefighters had elevated levels of the poison in their blood.

Officials immediately tested the water in the station. They also ordered the other firefighters at the station, 5000 82nd Ave. N, to have blood tests to see how extensive the problem is.

The water tests were negative, city spokesman Tim Caddell said Monday.

That led public health workers to focus on Station 33. They tested the walls and tiles Monday. They also took samples from the firefighters' bunker gear, the protective outfits and gear firefighters wear to protect them from fires.

Those results were mostly negative, with the walls and tiles testing clear, Fulton-Jones said.

"The bunker gear had a small spike, but it was so small as to be inconclusive," she said.

Health officials will look into the possibility of further testing the bunker gear, she said.

But the main focus of the investigation has now shifted to the firefighters' lifestyles.

When all the firefighters' tests are received, Fulton-Jones said, any with elevated levels of arsenic will be extensively interviewed to find out what they've done and where they've been for the past six or so months.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that, in combination with other substances, can be used as a wood preservative or as a pesticide. At high levels, it can kill. At lower levels, long-term exposure can increase the risk of certain types of cancer.

At low levels, it can cause a variety of symptoms including nausea, vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, a pins-and-needles sensation in the hands and feet, sore throat and irritated lungs.

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