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New tests on firefighters find four free of arsenic

Tainted seafood is suspected in the high levels discovered during earlier tests of seven crew members.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003

PINELLAS PARK -- Additional tests have found no traces of arsenic in the blood of four Pinellas Park firefighters who previously tested positive for the poison, city officials said Wednesday.

The good news brought tentative sighs of relief from Pinellas Park officials. Test results are expected this week from the other three firefighters whose blood showed higher than acceptable arsenic levels.

The type of arsenic suggests it may have come from something the firefighters ate, such as seafood.

Pinellas Park officials had faced the possibility that Fire Station 33, where the seven work, was the source of the contamination.

"I'm very relieved that at this point we don't have any employees who are ill," Pinellas Park Fire Chief Ken Cramer said. "We're still looking to find the cause of the problem."

Cramer said he's not sure if other tests are scheduled.

Cramer said he suspected tainted seafood might be the cause of the high arsenic levels. Fish is a favorite food, he said. Many firefighters who fish on their time off bring their catch to share with colleagues. Some seafood is a common source of arsenic.

While city officials are cautiously optimistic, firefighters still have many questions.

"I think that everybody whose levels are coming down feel relieved," said Jerry Lubick, vice president of the Pinellas Park branch of the International Association of Firefighters.

But, Lubick said, firefighters wonder if the latest tests are being overemphasized.

"Are we going to pick the test we like best?" he asked.

It's unclear so far why one test would be better or more accurate than another. It's equally unclear, he said, why levels that were so high would suddenly drop to nothing.

One question firefighters want to ask the doctors, he said, is if "it is reasonable to expect readings to fluctuate that much in this time period."

The city first realized it had a problem late last month when two Pinellas Park firefighters tested for high levels of arsenic during their annual physicals.

When retested, both showed even higher levels. One was tested a third time and the level had dropped, but not below an acceptable level.

The city tested the station at 5000 82nd Ave. N, with readings taken on everything from walls to cooking utensils to the protective gear firefighters wear. While most readings were negative, some spikes were noted on the protective clothing and some floor tiles in the administrative area.

The city hired a toxicologist and an environmental engineer to help discover the source of the problem.

Officials also tested all firefighters and administrative personnel at the station.

Most tests were negative, with high arsenic levels showing in the blood of only the original two and five more firefighters.

The investigation then centered on those firefighters' lifestyles, including their food choices and whether they smoke.

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