New York Post
January 11, 2004

SICKENED BY A STATION CURSE

By SAM SMITH

An alarming outbreak of brain tumors, miscarriages and facial paralysis to hit cops and firefighters who share an Upper West Side building have the stricken men and women branding their digs a poisoned precinct.

The sickly station house has seen a shocking 20 miscarriages among female police officers since 1986, three brain tumors since the mid-'90s, two brain aneurysms in 1997 and six cases of the facial paralysis Bell's palsy in the past two years alone.

That's about twice the national rate of miscarriages, 30 times the rate of brain tumors and 100 times the rate of Bell's palsy, according to government records.

The maladies at the 24th Precinct and Engine Co. 76/Ladder Co. 22 - which share the blighted building on 100th Street - have stumped FDNY investigators. Meanwhile, the firefighters and officers stationed there say not enough is being done to protect them.

"They've let us know they don't know what's causing it," said Battalion 11 Chief Robert Holzmaier. "They basically threw their hands in the air and said, 'Good luck.' "

The Uniformed Firefighters Association and cops at the 24th Precinct think that a padlocked firing range in the precinct's basement - where lead bullets were fired for years - could be the source of the poisoning.

Another officer at the precinct said asbestos was cleaned from the range in the early '90s and abnormal lead levels were detected at around the same time.

An NYPD spokesman last week could not confirm the asbestos cleaning but said routine air tests conducted at the range eight years ago showed no problems.

The range was closed nine years ago because it was no longer needed and remains padlocked, said a police spokesperson.

The FDNY tried to probe the cause of the illnesses in August 2002 and last January called in an independent auditor to conduct air-quality tests in the station.

The tests revealed nothing abnormal, according to the FDNY, so the investigation ended there.

For afflicted Engine 76 firefighter George Rodriguez, as for many Bell's palsy sufferers, the illness struck suddenly. "One minute, I was fine, the next minute, bang, half my face was paralyzed," said Rodriguez, who missed six months of work as he recovered. Rodriguez, however, said he has no plans to leave the station.

Last September, the city's Department of Health met with firefighters to explain what is known about Bell's palsy, saying there was nothing that could be conclusively blamed for the illness.

But Chief Holzmaier is not satisfied. He feels the FDNY and other city agencies have forgotten about the station - and cops there feel the same.

"I don't think anybody's doing anything about this," said a veteran officer, who declined to be identified.

The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association says it cannot help because none of the sick officers has filed official grievances. "Our delegates have discussed some medical problems with a number of officers in that precinct, offered to file grievances, recommended the possibility of legal action in the future, and none of the officers were interested in pursuing it," said Al O'Leary, a spokesperson for the PBA.

The NYPD said no complaints have been filed with them, either.

"The health and safety of our employees is extremely important," said NYPD spokesman Michael Collins. "We would encourage anyone who might have some problems to report it."

Phil McArdle, the safety officer with the UFA, said he intends to conduct more air tests in the precinct basement and is investigating an underground fuel tank behind the building.

At the police station, cops want action. "I'd like to have somebody say it's fine, that the people who are sick are not sick because of something from here. And to have that based on proven fact," one cop said. "Everybody here wants that."