Family fears Fort Detrick gave them cancer

By Megan Eckstein
The Frederick News-Post
Jul. 12, 2010

Former Frederick residents are gearing up for a town hall meeting Saturday to discuss the possibility that Fort Detrick caused three cases of cancer in their family.

Randy White is spearheading the event, the first in his Fighting for Frederick project, after one of his daughters died of a brain tumor two years ago at the age of 30. His other daughter had three stomach tumors removed, and his ex-wife was diagnosed with stage four renal cell carcinoma about three months ago.

"At that point, the doctors of (H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute) told us that this was not genetic by any means," White said. "When they told me it was environmental, I immediately put all of my efforts into finding out what happened, why it happened, etc. Which brought me back to Frederick , where they grew up."

Kristen Renee White Hernandez, who died in April 2008, and Angie Pieper, who White said is doing fine after having the stomach tumors removed, lived with their mother on Lake Coventry Drive from 1995 to 2005. They lived in the Hillcrest neighborhood beforehand, and both women eventually moved to Florida, where White lives.

Fort Detrick officials were invited to Saturday's meeting, but will not send any representatives, several Fort Detrick employees said.

Fort Detrick officials repeatedly said independent reports do not indicate a link to Area B, and that cancer cases should be reported to the Frederick County Health Department to allow for a more thorough investigation into a possible cancer cluster.

"All the reports that we have from the Centers for Disease Control and the ATSDR have told us that we are not causing cancer, they have told us that we are no public health risk," Fort Detrick commander Col. Judith Robinson said at a June 21 town hall meeting. "So that is the best data I have available. And until other data comes forward then we won't have any other viewpoint to take."

Fort Detrick used part of its Area B as a landfill decades ago, and in 1992 state and county health officials detected contamination in nearby residential wells. In response, Fort Detrick supplied bottled water to affected families. In 1997, contamination levels spiked when a drum was punctured while digging up the old landfill. Fort Detrick abandoned that tactic until late 2001, when it dug up 3,500 tons of waste and soil from parts of the old landfill and sent it to a waste management facility for disposal.

Since the waste removal project, Fort Detrick sought to address the remaining contaminated areas by capping them with an impermeable layer and several feet of soil, keeping rainwater from seeping into the waste below and spreading any contaminants into the groundwater. The capping project is in its final stages.

The government has spent at least $44 million to address the Area B contamination. Five homes are still on bottled water until the county completes its project to connect them to its water supply, and one farm on the north side of Area B was connected to Fort Detrick's water supply.

But White and Pieper said the government has not done enough. White hired a team of scientists from the University of South Florida to test air and water near Area B a few months ago. He said three of the team's samples showed contamination, although the latest Environmental Protection Agency and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports show levels too low to cause illness. White sent another team two weeks ago to study vapor intrusion, a process by which underground water vaporizes, leaking contaminated gas into houses through basements.

White and the Kristen Renee Foundation have also been collecting survey results from the community. The survey asked for information about how long people have lived in Frederick , whether there were any cases of cancer in their household and whether they had any family history of cancer. White said he learned of 228 people with cancer who live within a few miles of Fort Detrick. But what he does with the data he collected, he said, will "depend on Fort Detrick's reaction."

"If they're willing to work with us, then we're not going to file a civil suit," he said. "But if they're not willing to work with us and they continue to disguise what they're doing and cover up, then I'm going to expose it."

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