City, police, FOP did not request cancer cluster study at District 5 HQ, agencies say

CINCINNATI -- While a tempest over possible health dangers at District 5 police headquarters has raged for almost a year, it appears that no one – not the police union, police department, city manager or elected officials – has formally requested or arranged for a health hazard evaluation of the building.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health -- also known as NIOSH -- told WCPO Wednesday it has not received a request to conduct an evaluation at 1012 Ludlow Ave.

Likewise, the Cincinnati Health Department said it would have referred any request to NIOSH, but it never got one.

Since last December, FOP President Dan Hils and City Council member Charlie Winburn have led the charge in publicizing claims that the Ludlow Avenue building may be linked to a higher cancer rate among present and former District 5 personnel -- possibly leading to six deaths in 2015 and 2016.

Hils and Winburn have since demanded that the city immediately close the building – much earlier than the city’s timetable. Mayor John Cranley has said he wants it done by Christmas. Police Chief Eliot Isaac set a deadline at the end of the year.

Hils told WCPO he made calls to NIOSH but didn’t get anywhere.

"I made some calls. I made a call to them some time ago. I don't remember specifically the details of the call. I don't remember it being very fruitful," Hils said.

Winburn, who noted he is not running in next week’s election, suggested that District 5 had become a political football.

"What I think is going on right now because of the political season, I think it's all getting bogged down with the city manager,” Winburn said. “I believe the city manager has a few internal issues with the FOP. It’s just been inaction down there.”

Both Hils and Winburn stepped up the pressure on the city and the police department Wednesday.

Hils threatened to sue the city to move the patrol officers out of the Ludlow building now. Hils, who has been single-handedly wrestling with police and city leaders, said the FOP would establish a five-member committee of present and former District 5 personnel with its first business to select and hire an attorney.

"I think it'll be taken by strong leadership in the city, or forced upon them by attorneys," Hils said.

Winburn said he sent a letter to Gov. John Kasich asking him to tour the District 5 headquarters and intervene on the FOP’s behalf.

“I’ve asked the Governor if he would, number one, declare a state of public health or medical emergency on the immediate emergency on District 5,” Winburn said.

Winburn said he wants Kasich to “send in the (Ohio) Department of Health, their investigators, to take a look at actually what is going on at this facility.”

Responding to a WCPO inquiry, Cincinnati Health Department spokesperson Marla Fuller said the department would have referred the FOP, police or city to the NIOSH Health Evaluation Unit to perform a cancer cluster evaluation at the Ludlow location if it had been asked.

“Not only is that a legitimate task that the NIOSH Health Hazards Evaluation Unit is charged with doing, the evaluation results would be more likely to be perceived as coming from a neutral source,” Fuller said. 

A NIOSH spokesperson, Stephanie Stevens, said employers, employees and unions can request an evaluation to determine whether health hazards are present and to assess exposures and employee health.

According to City Manager Harry Black, the city conducted tests last January for mold, radon and asbestos and found the air quality in the building "typical for commercial buildings." Still, Black recommended closing the building saying it had become too small for a district headquarters.

"The manager has claimed that the building had been given a clear bill of health,” Hils said. "We're going to have to engage the city on what it is that they think has to come investigation-wise."

Hils said he believes the building has been a contributing cause to a higher-than-average cancer rate, though he admits he can’t say for sure.

“The truth is nobody knows what is causing, if something is causing, the cancer rate to be out of line,” he said.

Hils said Black should have requested the NIOSH tests.

“To do those tests, to take that initiative, that would be that of the city of Cincinnati. I don’t think they’ve taken that initiative,” Hils said.

“I would think this would fall under the duty of the manager to assign what he thinks is important to take care of their people.”

Hils said he decided to form an FOP committee after realizing he needed more help.

“This is a job that has grown bigger as more and more people have come to me -- active duty and retired people -- the number of people who have been stricken by cancer,” Hils said.

“Unfortunately you learn a lot. I, at times, maybe pressed too hard. At times (I) didn’t press hard enough. One thing, if I could look back, it would’ve been encouraging to take that official move earlier.”

Winburn also expressed regret at the lack of NIOSH testing.

“What happened here is that it was just a disregard (by the city),” Winburn said. “I’m hearing there’s no scientific studies. Well, then the city manager, the mayor and the council -- all of us -- are responsible.

“We should take responsibility. I feel like I’m taking responsibility. The good news is that I’m not running for anything.”

The police department and the city have already responded to health concerns and complaints by Hils and Winburn by moving all administrative personnel out of D5 headquarters to the police training facility at Spinney Field, where the Bengals used to practice.

Once everyone leaves Ludlow Avenue, the city plans to house the employees in leased buildings in Camp Washington until the former Permits Center at 3300 Central Parkway can be renovated into a permanent home in 2019.

Hils calls that a partial victory, but not a satisfying one.

“It’s better. I’ve been asked before if this will make you happier. None of this will make me happy because in the end I’ll always remember that a lot of people have suffered,” he said. “Whether it will ever be proven or not, it’s proven in my heart that there’s a tie to that building.”

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