SAN LEANDRO, Calif. (KTVU) - In just the last three years, at least five young, healthy Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies, who worked at the same San Leandro substation were diagnosed with cancer, and they’re now questioning if the aging building may be to blame.
The deputies, all in there 30s, were assigned to the Eden Township substation in San Leandro, which county records show was built in the 1940s and contains asbestos. In fact, every year each of the 236 employees who work in the building are required to sign a form acknowledging they understand the building contains the chemical. If fibers from asbestos become airborne and are inhaled, research shows there’s an increased risk of cancer. Four of the deputies were diagnosed with testicular cancer and one was diagnosed with spine cancer.
“(The building is) kind of the only common denominator, in my opinion,” said Deputy Nicholas Salcedo who was the first of the five to be diagnosed in 2016. “I felt a lump on my testicle just out of the blue.”
Salcedo called his diagnoses the “scariest moment of my life. I’ve never dealt with any type of cancer in my family,” he said. “When I heard cancer, I immediately thought, I’m going to die.” Since then, doctors say he is cancer free.
While Salcedo went through radiation therapy and had surgery to remove the lump, at least three other deputies have since then learned they too had testicular cancer. They are at varying stages of treatment.
The deputies let their union, the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, know what was going on, fearful they were unsafe at work.
“They’re afraid to go to work and I don’t blame them,” said senior attorney Steven Welty, who filed an OSHA complaint on behalf of the deputies. “That’s just a concerning number to me and I don’t even work there.”
Welty said he sent a letter last September to Alameda County Undersheriff Richard Lucia, calling for the county to lay out steps taken to make sure the building is safe. The letter also demands a comprehensive, independent inspection.
“We want them to test the walls, test the floors, test the air, test the water,” Welty said.
In October, Alameda County Counsel initially declined to do additional testing and instead stood behind its annual safety inspections.
Anytime there is construction at the substation, the county assured the union that the facility is inspected, evaluated and abated if any safety hazards are identified. The county explained all industry standards and local laws are followed.
But 2 Investigates found that in the last decade, there have been eight construction projects at the San Leandro substation where Alameda County said it hired licensed, specialized abatement contractors and an industrial hygienist to test the air both during and after construction.
“I do think it’s important to investigate whether there’s a common source of exposure,” Robert Harrison, a clinical professor at UCSF Medical Center told 2 Investigates. “It is not unusual to see what we call ‘cancer clusters.’”
Harrison said asbestos exposure usually takes decades to develop into cancer, debunking the idea that asbestos may be the culprit. Additionally, testicular cancer is typically not associated with asbestos exposure. However, he does consider the same cancer in four separate cases a red flag.
“The first thing is to make sure there’s nothing coming in from outside the building,” he said.
Harrison said checking air intakes and the ventilation system are important. Secondly, he suggested testing for chemicals coming from carpets, paints or furniture inside the building.
Still, the union representing the deputies was not satisfied with the county’s response and filed an OSHA complaint last December. In it, there are details explaining that deputies were walking around the substation with pocket radiation monitors, fearful they may find chemicals in the air that put off radiation. Several of the monitors went off inside the building, according to the OSHA complaint.
“Either give it a clean bill of health or figure out if it’s causing cancer,” Welty said.
Several of the deputies have filed workers’ compensation claims. In California, there’s a cancer presumption law, which means the state recognizes a link between cancer and the job police officers do. They can receive compensation if they're diagnosed with cancer. However, since medical records are kept confidential, the union is only aware of five confirmed cancer cases.
“We know of five. It could be 10, it could be 20,” Welty said. “We have no idea what the number are.”
In February, the county agreed to hire an independent expert to inspect the facility.
Numerous phone messages from 2 Investigates to Alameda County were not returned.
While Deputy Salcedo is free of cancer and no longer works at the substation, he’s increasingly anxious for immediate action to protect his friends.
“I just don’t want it to happen to other people. Especially the people I work with,” he said.