Dozens of San Jose firefighters say there is something unusual about one of the city’s oldest and busiest firehouses. For years, they have called fire station number five “the cancer station.” It was all talk, with no formal investigation by the San Jose Fire Department for more than a decade. Now, the leader of the department has pledged to examine the fire station’s infamous reputation after firefighters raised concerns to the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.
“There are a lot of old guys who know that if you worked at that station long enough, there is a good chance you are going to come down with cancer,” said retired San Jose fire captain Rick Wardall. “It is kind of almost a sick joke that when you work at station five, you can’t wait to get out and work at some other station.”
Wardall spent almost 30 years as a San Jose firefighter, including nearly six years at station five. In March, he was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer.
“My life is changed,” Wardall said. “It will never be the same.”
Wardall’s colleague, Mike Cunningham, a 30-year-veteran of the force, worked at station five for two years. He also has cancer—a bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma. He was diagnosed in 2010.
“There is no cure for my cancer,” Cunningham said.
Both men are now fighting for their lives. They recognize the fact that firefighters are at a greater risk for cancer, but they want the city to explore why station five has earned the unusual reputation as “the cancer station.”
“Anyone who worked at San Jose Fire can remember a friend who died of cancer who worked at station five,” Cunningham said.
Capt. Jose Martinez is one of them. He also spent part of his career working at station five. The 41-year-old died two months after doctors diagnosed him with synovial sarcoma—a rare and aggressive form of cancer. When he came home on hospice last summer, Martinez’s wife Melissa had to break the news to their 8-year-old son, Jonah.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Your Papi is coming home to die,” Melissa Martinez said.
Capt. Martinez died on Aug. 10, 2012; just two weeks after his wife gave birth to their twin girls.
“At 3 a.m. he went, and in just a quick moment’s time he was gone,” Martinez said. “And I became a single mom with three kids.”
She learned about many firefighters’ concerns regarding station five shortly after her husband died, and now the firehouse’s reputation gnaws at her.
“It lingers. It lingers in the back of my mind,” she said. “I wonder.”
Martinez, Cunningham and Wardall are part of a growing roster of firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer and who also list station five on their resumes. During the past six months, NBC Bay Area has interviewed dozens of current and former San Jose firefighters who have been grappling with station five’s reputation as “the cancer station.” The Investigative Unit found at least 16 firefighters who have worked at station five and have also been diagnosed with cancer.
Epidemiologists and other health experts contacted by NBC Bay Area acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to prove a link between working in a specific firehouse, and a cancer diagnosis. They also point out that cancer clusters are rare.
“Scientifically looking at it from a technical point of view, would you say, ‘I developed cancer as a consequence of being at this fire station?’ Probably not,” said Dr. Mike Wilson, director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley. “Could you say that there were exposures at this fire station that may have contributed to the development of cancer? That is plausible.”
Several San Jose firefighters say the concerns at station five are not limited to cancer. They also point to a series of environmental exposures in and around the building. The station sits in a highly industrial part of the city, and for years firefighters have sent memos and raised concerns about problems with air quality. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has determined that station five is located in a “toxic air contaminant” zone, but several air quality studies over the past decade have not identified any harmful levels of contamination.
Firefighters say one of their greatest concerns centers on the belief that station five responds to more high-risk chemical fires than any other station in San Jose. Wardall and Cunningham say they know firefighters who have refused to work at station five because of the risks and potential hazards associated with the station.
“The reputation was it’s a dirty place to work and a place to stay away from if you could,” Cunningham said. “If you worked there you were going to be exposed to things you weren’t at any other station.”
The city recently addressed concerns over environmental exposures in and around station five by spending more than $1 million redeveloping the facility. However, the firefighters’ concerns go deeper. They want the city to investigate station five’s reputation, especially if—as Cunningham and Wardall point out—the results can help firefighters in the future.
“It would be nice if the city would step up and admit that there was a problem there,” Wardall said.
Wilson agrees that city leaders have a responsibility to track cancer in their firefighters, and said it is “incumbent” upon them to “respond and investigate their concerns.”
Acting San Jose Fire Chief Ruben Torres also spent time working at station five. After the Investigative Unit brought the concerns of current and former firefighters to his attention, Torres has asked the city to take a closer look.
“Absolutely, our fire department should track cancer and figure out what’s causing cancer in our firefighters,” Torres said.
He said that he will recommend that the city of San Jose begin building a database of firefighters’ work histories and track any illnesses. While the experts contacted by NBC Bay Area say that connecting cancer directly to station five is a long shot, they all agree that there is value in tracking cancer cases, and the connection to potentially carcinogenic exposures.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers of Disease Control recently published a report that concluded firefighters have an increased risk of cancer compared to the general population. Researchers undertook a four year study that involved tracking cancer in firefighters in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. The second phase of the study will examine the employment histories from the three fire departments, and look for any occupational exposures and the connection to cancer and death.
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