Local police officers, firefighters seek justice through U study

By By Natalie Hale

By Natalie Hale

Susan Dunn is concerned.

She represents more than 50 Utah police officers who suffer from medical conditions believed to be related to exposure to drugs, specifically methamphetamines.

Most of these officers were exposed to the drugs after they were assigned to metro-narcotic drug busts in the ’80s and ’90s, when protection against the chemicals wasn’t used.

A center at the U is now working on a study to determine if these officers were in fact affected through their line of work.

The Rocky Mountain Center for Occupation and Environmental Health from the U signed a contract with the Utah Labor Commission on Nov. 8 to begin working on finding answers for these police officers.

Dunn said the officers received little training on how to handle the chemicals found at the busts. Suits and breathing apparatuses to protect the officers and those who catalogued the evidence were also not provided.

“They were even told in the early days to smell the chemicals in order to identify them,” Dunn said. “Dangerous drugs such as ammonia, ephedrine, iodine, red devil lye and embalming fluids could be found among the ingredients to make the meth.”

To provide the crucial link, which would determine that those exposed to drugs in the line of duty should receive medical compensation, a bill was passed by the Utah State Legislature. In order to determine whether those exposed to the drugs during their work were getting sick because of it, $500,000 was given to fund a study.

“We are concerned because the study by law was supposed to begin July of 2006,” said Kurt Hegmann, director of the center and principal investigator of the study. “Starting it now, in mid-November, puts us on a very tight schedule to get it back on track, time- wise.”

“Now,” he said, “we have to get approval from the U’s Institutional Review Board in order to get started, which could optimistically take two months.”

Putting together the records and performing the analysis will require at least 15 people to work on it, Hegmann said.

“We have to calculate the risk of death among them,” he said. “We are on a very tight time-line and no one knows for sure how many professional firefighters and police officers there are in Utah.”

To get compensation for their medical bills, these officers must prove that it was the direct exposure to these drugs from their line of work that is making them ill.

“It is their burden of proof to prove they have these diseases as a result of their exposure,” said Joyce A. Sewell, administrative director at the Utah Labor Commission. “They don’t have a doctor who can state there is a higher incident, that their diseases are causally related.”

Ten out of the 50 police officers Dunn represents have esophageal cancer, which is rare among middle-age non-smokers.

“When you get sick while working, you get workers’ compensation, but most of these men didn’t get sick until years later. Some after they retired,” Dunn said. “No study has been done in the United States about the medical links of exposure of officers.”

The study is due to report to the Utah legislature by October 15, 2008. It is designed to look at the incidence of cancers and illnesses in all of Utah’s past firefighters and police officers that were exposed to drug-related chemicals.

“I have had three of the men I represent die in the past four months,” Dunn said. “It is my job to make sure that this study gets underway and that these officers are taken care of.”

Mike Terry

Julie Mayhew, director of development for the Union, stands next to one of the four fireplaces in which a missing time capsule was possibly placed 50 years ago. Hoping to find and open it in time for the Union’s 50th anniversary celebration in January, Mayhew and her colleagues are resorting to metal detectors and X-rays to locate the capsule.