Seattle authorities have moved firefighters out of a Northgate fire station where worries have long been raised about unhealthy conditions and links to illnesses such as cancer.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins made the relocation decision this week, citing initial results from environmental testing recently undertaken at Station 31 by the Seattle firefighters union, Local 27. Crosscut first reported the action.
Though the city has tested Station 31 in the past and cleared the building for use, firefighters have repeatedly expressed concerns about the conditions and referred to the structure as “Cancer House.” Many firefighters who have worked at Station 31 have been diagnosed with cancer, so Local 27 president Kenny Stuart decided to take another look at the building.
“We’d been taking the city’s word for it,” Stuart said, mentioning problems with toxins at fire stations in Tumwater and San Francisco. “But I wanted to do my own testing.”
The initial results from Local 27’s testing indicate there may be mycotoxins, a byproduct of some molds, in some parts of the building, the mayor’s office and Fire Department said in a statement.
The statement described Wednesday’s move as a temporary, precautionary measure while more testing is done.
Seattle has hired NVL, a company that specializes in industrial hygiene, test Station 31 for mycotoxins and mold spores, according to the statement. A second company, Kester, will also test the building for mycotoxins, according to the city. The testing began Tuesday, using surface and air samples.
“The mayor and fire chief will continue taking necessary steps to protect the health and safety of all (Fire Department) members,” the mayor’s office and Fire Department said.
Stuart said he hopes the new tests will prove that this was a fluke, and he praised Durkan and Scoggins for responding quickly this week. But he fears the results will be consistent with previous testing and is wary about the city downplaying the danger.
“‘Nothing to see here. Mold is everywhere. Move along.’ That’s what we don’t want to hear,” the union president said.
“Firefighters operate in risky environments, so we demand a really healthy environment back at the station,” he added. “They look at this as our workplace. But we view the station as our workplace and our second home.”
The city previously conducted testing of various kinds at the station five times over 15 years, checking for bacteria mold in 2004 and 2016 and checking air quality last year.
“Experts have indicated the building is safe,” the mayor’s office and Fire Department said.
Stuart said the prior tests might not have been the right kinds. “The city is now going to be testing mycotoxins for the first time ever,” he said.
The evacuated firefighters will, for now, work out of other North Seattle stations: Ladder 5’s four firefighters will be at Station 39 in Lake City; Medic 31’s two firefighter-paramedics will be at Station 35 in Crown Hill; Aid 31’s two firefighters at Station 24 in Bitter Lake; and Engine 31’s four firefighters at Station 17 in the University District.
Stuart said the temporary arrangements will be inconvenient but manageable.
Firefighters spoke out in the early 2000s, after a string of them who had spent time at Station 31 were diagnosed with cancer and two died.
A subsequent study found no links between the building and the sickness. Research has shown that firefighters, in general, are at unusually high risk for cancer because the blazes they douse routinely expose them to dangerous substances, including carcinogens.
But questions about Station 31 were revived when a healthy firefighter with no family history of brain cancer was diagnosed with it, forcing his retirement in 2016.
Scoggins connected with scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who agreed to investigate whether Station 31 firefighters were being diagnosed with cancer at higher rates than those at other Seattle stations.
“We know cancer is an issue for the fire service,” Scoggins said at the time. “But we would like to know if we’re causing that ourselves.”
The city is spending $400,000 on the Fred Hutch study, which began last year and for which results were said to be expected this summer.
“Firefighters have a dangerous job,” the mayor’s office and Fire Department said. “Seattle is committed to monitoring our dedicated workers and ensuring we don’t have any elevated problems because of their working conditions.”
Stuart said he thinks more bad news may be on the way.
“I have a pretty distinct sense this is the beginning, not the end,” he said.