Cincinnati asks feds for cancer cluster study on District 5 police station

Cincinnati asks feds for cancer cluster study on District 5 police station
Cincinnati Police's Criminal Investigation Section used to be located in this building on Broadway Street Downtown that also holds the Hamilton County Board of Elections. (Photo: Cincinnati Enquirer)
FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Baker
FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Baker

CLIFTON, OH (FOX19) - Nearly a year after FOX19 NOW launched an investigation into working conditions and health concerns at Cincinnati Police District 5 headquarters, city leaders are formally requesting a federal cancer cluster study.

The review will determine if there is an unusually high cancer rate among District 5 officers - and if so, why.

The decision was announced Thursday shortly after Councilman Charlie Winburn demanded City Manager Harry Black make the request to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) within a 12-hour period.

A spokeswoman for Mayor John Cranley said the mayor supported the study being conducted.

Then, Chief Eliot Isaac, whose daughter now works as a patrol officer at District 5, wrote in an email of support to Black and other city officials including Cincinnati Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Marilyn Crumpton and Deborah Allison, the city's risk manager:

"In light of the serious concerns at District 5, I would request the assistance of the Health Department and Risk Management in coordinating with NIOSH to perform a cancer cluster evaluation. Your intervention in this matter is greatly appreciated."

About 30 minutes later, city spokesman Rocky Merz emailed Winburn: "In response to the Chief's request, the City's Risk Management Division has indicated they will proceed with requesting NIOSH perform a cancer cluster review straight away."

The swift action was a dramatic about-face at City Hall.

Despite nearly a year of health and air quality concerns at District 5 and suspicions that a possible cancer cluster is sickening now dozens past and present officers, city and police officials had not asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to investigate until now.

City administrators also rejected a request in early January from prominent civil rights leader Bishop Bobby Hilton for the city to request a "cancer outlier study" on District 5.

Hilton called for the review after his sister, then a District 5 officer, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Most council members have said they thought Hilton's proposal had merit and they would like that information, too.

At that time, however, Merz told FOX19 NOW city officials would not be discussing cancer rates among employees at various city work spaces.

From 2015-2016, there have been 6 cancer-related deaths and 13 cancer diagnoses of staff under the age of 60 allegedly linked to the D5 building, according to Winburn's memo to Black.

Winburn has repeatedly referred to District 5 as a "deathtrap" and now compares conditions inside the building to the water crisis in Flint, MI.

"We could be facing widespread resignations, firings, and federal indictments due to our inaction," Winburn wrote in his memo to the city manager, which was copied to Council and the mayor and released to FOX19 NOW.

"After the Flint water crisis, as many as 15 people were criminally charged relating to their inaction or misconduct. This was all because of their failure to take the issue seriously and make it a priority and they downplayed citizens and politicians who complained. It also resulted in three resignations and four firings.

"I am aware that after a NIOSH study is conducted, the city may be subject to serious legal liability if the results prove to be hazardous due to our delay," Winburn's memo stated.

Hilton applauded Winburn in calling for the cancer cluster study.

"This absolutely needs to happen! The delay in protecting the officers is unacceptable," he said Thursday. "City Manager Black should move on this immediately!"

Paula McGuire also was relieved: "It's about time. I'm shocked that it took this long. Our city manager needs to get off his butt. We need some fresh blood in there to get some things done."

She is the widow of Robert McGuire, a Cincinnati police specialist who worked at District 5 for four of his 12-year career with the department before he died of complications of cancer on Jan. 15, 2015.

It was the same day one of his former co-workers, District 5 Specialist Stephanie Bradford, 50, passed away from Stage 4 appendix cancer.

Paula McGuire sued the city in February, alleging "toxic and hazardous substances" at the building caused her 51-year-old husband, Robert McGuire, to develop the cancer that killed him.

He worked at District 5 until 2006, when he was transferred to District 3. He beat colon cancer after a 2010 diagnosis, but his 2012 lung cancer wasn't as forgiving.

Now she says she doesn't want to see another of his fellow officers stricken with the disease.

"I''m glad they are going to go in there and do what they need to do," she said. "It will give the officers the peace of mind. It's sad it's taken this long.

"If this was any other business in the Tri-State, this would not have happened. Here are these men and women protecting us They deserve  the same clean working environment we all expect. Better late than never."

Winburn's request for a cancer cluster study comes a day after FOX19 NOW asked why the city or police department never requested one during a press conference he held in his office to announce he sent a letter to Gov. John Kasich asking him to intervene and declare a public health or medical emergency to immediately shut down District 5.

A representative from Kasich's office and the Ohio Department of Health spoke with Winburn and his chief of staff, Jacob Hessling, Thursday morning for a briefing on the situation.

Winburn and Hessling asked them to evaluate their options and give them any support they can to move the officers out of District 5 as quickly as possible and do a review of the building, according to Hessling.

Kasich's office is non-committal so far.

"Our office has been in contact with the councilman and are currently reviewing his inquiry," wrote Kasich spokesman Jon Keeling in an email to FOX19 NOW.

FOX19 NOW was the first to tell you about concerns related to District 5 in a series of investigative reports that began in November 2016.

Complete coverage: FOX19 NOW Investigates Cincinnati Police District 5 headquarters

The police union president, Sgt. Dan Hils, exclusively took our cameras inside the building to expose what he said were "shameful" conditions inside. He turned to us for help after police commanders unsuccessfully tried for years to convince council members to spend money on a new building.

As our cameras rolled, Hils pointed out concerns about mold, asbestos, spiders, a bed bug infestation, mice, a leaky roof and cramped quarters.

During our tour, we asked about the number of times so far that year the building had been sprayed with pesticides as part of bed bud treatment. We also asked if anyone who worked in the building was getting sick.

After our tour, the police union asked the city to conduct air quality tests

Those tests, conducted in December, found no major problem and gave the building essentially a "clean bill of health," according to Black.

Still, saying the aging building was too small for current needs, Black recommended earlier this year that council renovate the city's vacant permit center on Central Parkway in Clifton into a new headquarters.

He later agreed to the police union's request to move 35 investigators and other non-patrol employees into another police facility until the new building is ready in 2019.

Those workers temporarily relocated Oct. 24 into space at the police department's Spinney Field Training Complex in Lower Price Hill.

The lobby closed to the public on Sunday.

But some 90 employees were left behind, mostly patrol officers. They are upset to be left behind and want to go, too.

The move to Spinney Field is considered a quick fix until the city can negotiate a lease to put all officers in a former bank building in Camp Washington.

The mayor has pledged free cancer screenings for past and present District 5 officers not already paid for by city insurance.

That came after the police union unanimously voted last month to demand the city move all officers out immediately and pay for cancer screenings for all active and retired District 5 officers.

If the city fails to comply with their demands, the union will consult lawyers, Hils wrote on Facebook.

Cancer concerns persist, especially over a pattern of at least 30 past and present District 5 officers who have been diagnosed with cancer, including several who have died, according to Hils.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute both say that a cancer cluster is a "greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a defined geographic area over a period of time."

Because cancer is a common disease, cancer can be found among people at any workplace, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the U.S., one in two men and one in three women in their lifetimes will develop or die from cancer.

He has said our reporting prompted officers with health concerns and those who have been touched by cancer to come to him and share their stories.

The six District 5 officers under the age of 60 who died in 2015 and 2016 concern him in particular, he has said. Five of them spent most of their shifts in the building.

Hils said long said he thinks there could be a link between the building and cancer, though there is no known tie between the two.

On Thursday, he - like Hilton and McGuire - welcomed the idea of federal health officials getting involved.

"If there was a study about the rate of cancer in that district it would finally tell the real truth about why the FOP engaged in this matter," he said.

Hils said he reached out to a couple different health agencies earlier this year about District 5 but "none of my calls were fruitful at all."

In the meantime, he said he has appointed a committee to start screening lawyers should the police union need to follow through on its threat of legal action if the city doesn't move all officers out of District 5 immediately and pay for cancer screenings for past and present officers.

Cranley has pledged free cancer screenings for past and present District 5 officers not already paid for by city insurance.

If NIOSH agrees to come in, it wouldn't be the first time they accessed a police facility to see if conditions inside caused cancer among officers.

NIOSH performed a health hazard evaluation on the police department's Criminal Investigation Section when it was located in a Broadway Street building Downtown in November 2008, federal records show.

Police management asked for the study after five CIS employees were diagnosed with cancer between 1998 and 2008, including four who had died, a NIOSH health hazard evaluation report states.

"The request concerned a possible excess of cancer among current and former employees. In addition, management expressed concern about chemical exposures encountered during criminal investigation procedures and about IEQ (indoor environmental quality) in the CIS on the fifth floor, as well as other areas of the building on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors."

NIOSH concluded "the numbers of types of cancer reported among employees of the CPD, CIS, did not appear unusual and were unlikely related to workplace exposures. None of the chemicals used regularly were known to cause cancer in humans, and all personal exposures were below OELs (occupational exposure limits).

"Recommendations were provided to correct problems with the design and function of the HVAC and LEV systems and to develop a forensic laboratory health and safety plan," the report states.

The five employees reported to have cancer each had a different type: lung adenocarcinoma, bile duct cholangiocarcinoma, multiple myeloma, melanoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the report.

"The average age of death was 62 years old. The employee still living was not working because of his illness," the report reads. "Their average duration of employment in the CIS was 16 years. Four were smokers and one never smoked."

In 2015, the city bought a building at 801 Linn St. in Queensgate and has since relocated CIS, the Special Investigations Section and Court Property Unit there.

"The relocation of these units will provide an opportunity to better consolidate departmental operations, improve operational efficiency and enhance customer service," a city ordinance shows.

"The Linn Street facility is a six-floor office complex consisting of approximately 600,000 square-feet of office space and will include over 200 parking spaces to accommodate both employee and public parking needs. The debt service resources for this project will be offset by savings resulting from the elimination of current facility lease payments."