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Maryland lawmakers call for cancer-cluster study

2011-02-25

Originally published February 25, 2011

By Meg Tully 
News-Post Staff 

ANNAPOLIS — Three state senators are calling for further studies of a possible cancer cluster around Fort Detrick and other possible cancer clusters throughout the state.

Sen. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, is sponsoring legislation that calls for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to do a detailed study into potential environmental causes of cancer, including toxins in the air, water or soil. Sens. Jamie Raskin and Joanne Benson, both Democrats, are co-sponsoring the bill.

Muse said Thursday he considers research that has already been done by a citizen group at Fort Detrick in Frederick a "microcosm" of challenges faced by communities throughout the state.

That group, the Kristen Renee Foundation, has identified more than 1,000 cases of cancer within a one-mile radius of Fort Detrick. It believes the cancer could be linked to past use of Agent Orange at the base, or to other environmental contaminants at Fort Detrick's Area B, which includes a landfill.

In four families whose land was taken to create Area B, more than 40 different cancers have been reported, according to the foundation. On Kemp Lane, there are 52 registered cancers; on Rocky Springs Road, 87 registered cancers; and on Shookstown Road, 110 registered cancers, foundation representatives said.

Muse's bill calls for a study by state officials, but does not include a funding source. He said he believed that state health officials should take money away from other programs and make cancer investigations a top priority.

"We have to study this, we have to get to the bottom of it, we have to make sure that no matter what the culprit might be, and no matter what it takes, that we are not sitting by and allowing Maryland families to ask us time and time again, 'What have we done and what have we not done to allow this to occur?'" Muse said at a news conference about the bill.

Raskin, who is undergoing treatment after being diagnosed with colon cancer last year, said his experience had underscored how important it is for the state to protect the public's health.

"If it were contagious, we would treat it like a public health emergency," Raskin said. "It's not contagious in the sense it's not passed from person to person, but there are certainly social causes of it."

Kristen Renee Foundation founder Randy White, whose daughter died from brain cancer at age 30 and whose wife died from renal cell carcinoma, has invested more than $700,000 in a personal investigation into possible environmental causes for their cancers. His other daughter also had abnormal tumors in her abdomen that doctors believe had an environmental cause, White said.

White and several other people who live near Fort Detrick testified to the committee about their research so far.

"There's something going on in the state of Maryland that we really need to open our eyes up and look," White said.

The state needs to do further assessments into exposure from burning pits, the spraying of Agent Orange from light planes and application from a truck-mounted spray tower, into solvents in the groundwater and into a landfill that has a cap on it but no bottom, said John Bee, owner of Tapash, an environmental consulting firm working with the foundation. Tapash examines risks associated with hazardous materials.

No one from Fort Detrick testified at the hearing.

Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton told those testifying that senators would make sure state agencies coordinate to try to do a better job of studying the issue.

"This should be a congressional hearing," Middleton said. "I'm sure I speak for the committee. We feel for you."

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