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Asbestos blamed for police officers' cancer diagnoses

As scientists learn more about environmental toxins, concerns about workplace safety are increasing. This is especially true in San Leandro, California, where five young police officers who worked at the same substation were all diagnosed with cancer within a short time. This "cancer cluster" suggests that these cases may be linked.

A dangerous place to work

The building where the sheriff's deputies regularly reported for duty was built in the 1940s. Alameda County records indicate that, like many aging structures, it contains asbestos. The presence of the carcinogen is so well-known that each year, everyone who works at the station must sign a form acknowledging that they're aware of the risks.

Asbestos poses a danger when fibers become airborne and people inhale them. This often happens during construction. Records show that eight construction projects were completed at the San Leandro facility within the last ten years, creating ample opportunities for the toxin to be released. Meanwhile, four officers went on to develop testicular cancer, while a fifth was diagnosed with spine cancer. It's unusual to have five cases originate at the same location within such a short time span.

A call for action

Fearful that their workplace wasn't safe, the five affected deputies alerted their union, the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Association. That prompted senior attorney, Steven Welty, to ask the county to conduct a thorough, independent inspection and take steps to ensure the building's safety. The county denied the request, insisting that its annual inspections were adequate.

Dissatisfied with the county's response, the union filed an Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaint a few months later, claiming that San Leandro deputies had begun carrying pocket radiation monitors to work. On several occasions, the monitors went off inside the building.

Additionally, California law recognizes a possible connection between cancer and the work police officers perform, allowing affected officers to receive workers' compensation. Several officers have already filed claims.

Recognizing workplace hazards

Several months ago, Alameda County finally agreed to hire an independent contractor to inspect the facility. Because cancers typically develop decades after asbestos exposure, it's difficult to establish whether the toxic substance is the culprit behind the officers' diagnoses, especially since asbestos is not typically linked to testicular cancer. However, there does appear to be a common denominator, highlighting the importance of regular chemical testing and other protocols to keep workers safe on the job. 

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