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Pants not source of illness, Fla. firefighters told

Michael LaForgia
The Palm Beach Post

BOCA RATON, Fla. — City firefighters complaining of strange symptoms can’t blame their pants for making them sick, a federal inquiry determined.

Even so, the local firefighters union Wednesday was sticking to the conclusion it reached late last year — that department-issued FireWear uniform pants were poisoning them with antimony, a fire retardant and heavy metal related to arsenic.

A month of testing 66 firefighters from Boca Raton and Tamarac, where firefighters also wore the pants, found no indication the pants caused health problems, according to the doctor heading the federal probe.

“Our results indicate that wearing FireWear pants does not cause elevated levels of antimony among firefighters,” wrote Dr. Marie de Perio of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, in a letter to Boca Raton Fire Chief Thomas Wood. “Given our findings, we do not believe any further investigation of this issue is warranted.”

Of 112 Boca Raton firefighters invited to participate in the federal study, only 24 took part, de Perio’s letter noted.

The reason, said Fire Capt. John Luca, the union president who successfully pushed the city to ditch the fire-retardant pants — and raised an alarm that prompted two other state fire departments to do the same — was that the firefighters knew the tests would reveal nothing.

“There’s a lot of conflicting information here. A lot of us were told that what they were doing is not valid,” Luca said. “They did not do a comprehensive medical review of all of our members. They did a test that they knew was going to come up with false readings.”

At issue for the firefighters was whether urine tests, rather than hair samples, would reveal evidence of long-term antimony exposure. Based on information from toxicologists and medical experts the union consulted, Luca said, the answer was no.

Also at play, Luca said, was the advice of the Ferraro Group, a Miami-based product liability law firm retained by a handful of union members, including Luca.

“People retained the law firm,” said Luca, who didn’t participate in the federal review. “They were told not to participate.”

In September, the union formed a committee to investigate the cause of the firefighters’ ailments after Luca, who suffered nerve problems including trembling and weakness, became suspicious of the pants.

Thirty-six firefighters submitted hair samples to Dr. Leonard Haimes, a holistic physician in Boca Raton, who sent the hair to a Chicago lab for testing.

Thirty of those tested showed “very elevated” antimony levels, Haimes and the union said.

Soon after the tests, firefighters filed worker’s compensation claims but were denied pending the federal review. Now that the inquiry is complete, those claims will be turned down, city officials said.

“We’re pleased to have received the report,” Assistant City Manager George Brown said Wednesday.

“We’re glad that that part of the process is complete and the indications are positive for the individuals.”

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