Proving cancer cluster at Cincinnati Police District Five could be challenging, expert says

CINCINNATI -- Nearly a year after a union president publicly linked cancer cases to Cincinnati Police District Five headquarters, investigators will try to figure out if his suspicions are true.

An expert from the University of Cincinnati thinks it could be a tough case to make.

Last week, the city of Cincinnati's Risk Management Division asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to look at whether District Five is connected to a "cancer cluster." That's a term used to describe "a greater than expected number of cancer cases among a group of people in a defined geographic area over a specific time period," according to the National Cancer Institute.

Fraternal Order of Police President Dan Hils and Councilman Charlie Winburn first raised concerns last December that conditions in the building might have contributed to what they believe is a higher-than-normal cancer rate among people who have worked there. Hils says six workers contracted cancer between 2015 and 2016.

 

"None of this will ever make me happy, because in the end I will always remember that a lot of people have suffered. And whether it will be proven or not, it's proven within my own heart," Hils said.

Scientific proof is a bit different: Investigators will focus on whether cancer rates among employees really are higher than what might be expected in the general population.

"There are really two components: one is are there exposures to be concerned about, and the other component is are the cancer cases here different from what we would expect," said Susan Pinney. She is a a professor of epidemiology at UC, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Genetics and a program leader of the Cincinnati Cancer Center.

Among the factors investigators will evaluate: how many people worked in the building, and for how long. Pinney said the District Five cases will be compared to local and regional statistics.

According to NIOSH, "cancer clusters related to a workplace exposure usually consist of the same types of cancer." District Five employees have been diagnosed with gastrointestinal, thyroid and appendix cancer.

"Unless you have very large numbers or a very rare cancer, it's pretty difficult to prove a cluster," Pinney said.

In fact, many cancer cluster investigations fail to link what appear might to be several related cases. Part of that is because cancer is such a common disease in the United States, afflicting about 40 percent of men and women in the United States during their lifetimes.

The city's request to NIOSH came a day after WCPO reported that no one -- not the police union, the police department, city manager or elected officials -- had ever requested the study.

According to NIOSH's guidelines, employers, employees and unions can request an evaluation. Both Fraternal Order of Police President Dan Hils and Councilman Charlie Winburn said they think it was the city's responsibility in this case.

 

Since Hils and Winburn first raised concerns, the union and city have disagreed on a timetable for relocating employees. Last month, Hils demanded that all remaining personnel be moved immediately. He recently said the FOP would hire an attorney and sue the city if necessary.

District Five's lobby closed to the public about a week ago; Mayor John Cranley and City Manager Harry Black have promised to move remaining personnel by year's end.

WCPO contacted federal officials for a timeline on the cancer cluster study, but we've not heard back.

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