Early report finds no cancer cluster near Fort Detrick
Health officials to continue looking into cancer numbers surrounding Frederick fort
Fort Detrick officials are encouraged by preliminary findings of a cancer cluster study that indicate no connection exists between groundwater contamination at the fort and incidences of cancer in nearby residents.
But Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, Frederick County's health officer, cautions that the study she undertook with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is just beginning, and had several limitations.
"A lot more work needs to be done," Brookmyer said.
Initial findings of three areas within a mile or so around the fort show 1,059 cancer cases between 2000 and 2007, less than its expected portion based on the number of cancer cases in all of Frederick County, but 102 more than the expected number of cases in Maryland during that period, according to data from the Maryland Cancer Registry.
Brookmyer picked those years, she said, because "that's all of a sudden when all of Frederick County's cancers went up."
But troublesome to Brookmyer are findings that Frederick County, according to data from the Maryland Cancer Registry, has the highest rate of cancer in the state from 2002-2006, with 551.7 cancer cases reported per 100,000 people. The average rate for the state is 466.7 cases per 100,000 people.
A comparison of those the two sets of numbers is not perfect because they cover different years, different geographic regions and are expressed in different formats (actual cases vs. rates), Brookmyer said, meaning that officials need to look deeper into the statistics.
"The data indicates that there's something different about Frederick County or the data," she said. "We expect over time to methodically go through the contributing factors. But it raised a question in my mind. ... Could the area around Detrick be contributing to the excess numbers of cancer?"
Brookmyer is forming an advisory committee to delve deeper into family medical histories, and is tapping the resources of genealogists to help trace the history of cancer in residents who lived near the fort.
Since 1992, the Maryland Cancer Registry by law must collect information on cancer diagnoses from doctors, hospitals, laboratories and cancer treatment centers. Information available through the registry includes where people lived when they were diagnosed with cancer, but does not ask where they lived previously or where they worked.
"Looking for a point source of exposure does have its limitations, as would any approach," Brookmyer said. "There is no real obvious or quick way to do this."
Brookmyer is getting assistance from the Kristen Renee Foundation, an organization named after Randy White's adult daughter who died of cancer in 2008.
The Kristen Renee Foundation has already invested in database technology, said spokeswoman Susan Funk, to incorporate the medical histories of nearly 700 people who report cancer among their families that includes a mapping system to show where people who contracted cancer lived.
Funk said that White, a Frederick native who lives in Hawaii, also wants to initiate a thorough epidemiological study to look at all the factors affecting the health and illness of the population.
She said the study will cost "millions" and will be funded by a "benefactor" she would not name.
"We have got our army here and we see they have access to information and technology that could be used to help American people and community right here in Frederick," Funk said. "They [the U.S. Army] know it is a problem in their own backyard and all they are doing is covering it up. This is something that has to be dealt with."
But Fort Detrick believes it is doing its due diligence, and that restoration efforts and research take time, said Robert Sperling, a Detrick spokesman.
He said fort officials are "encouraged by the results that show no significant elevation of cancer rates in Frederick," but the U.S. Army is continuing to research cancer in those who live or lived near the fort by setting up a website for the community and following up on their stories with one-on-one interviews.
More detailed information about cancer victims, such as where they lived prior to diagnosis, or where they worked is not included in the Maryland Cancer Registry, but Brookmyer said that hopefully the advisory committee will provide some help, too.
"I would agree that a lot more work needs to be done; this hasn't even scratched the surface," Funk said. "There is a lack of manpower and a lack of funding and a lack of technology in the process so far."
William Krantz, who once farmed near Detrick, has a history of cancer in his family, including his wife who is battling the disease.
After all these years with no answers forthcoming about Detrick's link to cancer in his family, Krantz is losing faith that anyone really wants to find those answers. "They are just waiting for us to die," he said in an interview.