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Cancer questions: Residents point finger at Detrick

Originally published July 01, 2003 
By Liz Babiarz
News-Post Staff FREDERICK -- Paulette Hooper, who has lived on Kemp Lane for 37 years, said she used to watch from her farm as waste was dumped into Fort Detrick's landfill in the 1960s and '70s.

"We laughed at it and thought nothing's going to happen to us," Mrs. Hooper said. "We were young and foolish."

When four women in her immediate neighborhood of about 50 people were diagnosed with breast cancer, Mrs. Hooper started to believe Detrick was the culprit.

"We are not related. We don't have the same lifestyles and we have all been here over 20 years. ... And we were all diagnosed in a two-year time span," said Mrs. Hooper, who has been told she also has skin cancer and cancerous cells in her thyroid.

"I think in my gut it is caused by Detrick and the chemicals we have had to live with and have lived with since the '60s."

Mrs. Hooper said she went to local health officials with her concerns and she was "brushed off," told her fears were unfounded.

Almost every Frederick resident has heard the story -- over the fence at Detrick, there are chemicals that can cause cancer and people who live around the installation are more likely to get sick than others. It is Frederick's own folklore that has been perpetuated year after year because most people do not think there is evidence to prove or disprove the claim.

Some residents, such as Mrs. Hooper, have turned to health and U.S. Army officials with their concerns.

Chuck Dasey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, said a few people have come to the base after they have been diagnosed or someone they know has been diagnosed to see if it is related to Detrick or the groundwater.

Mr. Dasey's answer: "There is nothing suggesting that anything coming from Detrick is the cause."

To drive the point home, Detrick officials asked a state health department official to give a presentation on cancer clusters at a November 2000 Restoration Advisory Board Meeting.

Dr. Robert Venezia, environmental health coordinator, said at the meeting he was not aware of any cancer clusters in Frederick County and clusters are often difficult to detect and verify because of several factors.

To an audience of 10 local residents, Dr. Venezia explained the factors that make clusters impossible to prove: Small number of cases in a small area, vague exposure and disease definition, long latency period, public pressure and lack of agency resources.

After the presentation, the board asked if a study could be done for the area southeast of Detrick based on the population living there between the 1960s and the 1980s. Dr. Venezia said that would be difficult because data in the Maryland Cancer Registry only goes back to 1992.

In addition, he said he would have to find people who lived there during that time and obtain their medical records.

"This could take years and would be very expensive," he said.

Dr. Venezia is not the only health official who thinks cancer cluster investigations are time-consuming and costly. Dr. James E. Bowes, Frederick County health officer, said his office occasionally gets calls about the cancer clusters around Detrick, but the county health department has never investigated any part of Frederick for clusters.

"It is always a question in certain communities, and it always flops on its face," Dr. Bowes said. "There is no problem there, but I think I have done these studies and it is a waste of time."

While there is a lot of curiosity, Dr. Bowes said the investigations are not a "worthwhile project" because rarely does anything materialize. According to the American Council on Science and Health, about 85 percent of the possible clusters that are reported by concerned community members are not statistically significant at all.

"It's human nature to want to attribute a certain cause to any serious disease that people see in their community," said Jeff Stier, the council's associate director. "When we see an increased rate of cancer, they want to figure out what is causing it."

Cancer clusters have interested scientists for years, but there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that environmental traces of chemicals cause cancer.

"I think it is like most myths, like the anthrax towers," said Cheryl Parrott, senior program analyst at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick. She referred to a Detrick building, closed because it would be impractical to use it, not because of a spill of deadly microbes.

"It turns out that it is people's fear and lack of knowledge," Ms. Parrott said. "Most folks don't know where to look for it."

Sandy Mastrino thinks people should start looking in her neighborhood. It has been two years since her husband died of cancer and she still believes that Detrick is to blame.

Mick Mastrino, who seemed like the "healthiest specimen you'd ever see," was diagnosed with bladder cancer after years of being a "big water drinker" from their well, Mrs. Mastrino said.

Today, Mrs. Mastrino continues to live three blocks from Detrick's perimeter on Vista Drive, but she said she takes precautions to protect herself.

"I don't drink the water," Mrs. Mastrino said. "I won't even give my dog the water. It is the only way I will continue to live here."

In the 30 years Mrs. Mastrino has lived in the Clover Hill development, she said that about 20 of her neighbors have been diagnosed with cancer. In particular, she remembers two of her friends down the street, who were next-door neighbors, who both died of cancer.

"There are people all over this development that have faced cancer," she said. "It seems to be so prevalent in this area."

'Most cancer clusters aren't cancer clusters'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a cancer cluster as a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period time.

According to the National Cancer Institute, a cancer cluster is more likely to be a true "cluster" if it includes a large number of cases of a specific types of cancer, rather than several different types of cancer or if it includes a rare type of cancer, rather than common types. A true cancer cluster also has an increased number of cases of a certain type of cancer in an age group that usually is not affected by cancer, like children.

"Most cancer clusters aren't cancer clusters," said Stacey Neloms, director of the Maryland Center for Cancer Surveillance and Control. "... We'll get a call from someone that says, 'There are a lot of cancer in my neighborhood,' but they are talking about lots of different types of cancer. Different types of cancer are caused by different things."

Mrs. Neloms added that cancer is going to occur and they expect to see it. From 1995 to 1999, 3,788 people were diagnosed with cancer and 1,449 died from the disease in Frederick County.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), Frederick County is seventh in terms of cancer incidence and fifth in terms of cancer mortality compared to other counties in the state. In 2003, about 705 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the county.

The CDC said that although the occurrence of cancer is random, the distribution of the disease may not be uniform and clumps of disease may arise by chance alone.

"It goes to the law of averages," Mr. Stier said. "Sometimes it is going to be more than the average and sometimes it is going to be less than the average. Some areas are going to have a higher rate of cancer than others. It doesn't have to be environmental. That's how distribution works."

Concerned residents may report suspected cancer clusters to the Frederick County Health Department. A health officer will listen and, if necessary, begin an investigation. But there has never been an investigation in Frederick or in the county, Dr. Bowes said.

If there were to be an investigation, he said he would collect information such as the type of cancer, number of cases, suspected exposure and geographic area. If the situation seemed serious, local and state health departments would work together and examine the "cluster" in stages.

Health officials might also contact the Maryland Cancer Registry, where cancer statistics are compiled. Using the data in the registry, officials compare the number of cases in the suspected cluster with the number of cases throughout the state to see if there is a true excess of cases.

Ms. Neloms said there are no clusters in Maryland, but her staff has compiled statistical data for investigation in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Baltimore city, Carroll, Charles, Hartford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Washington and St. Mary's counties. None of those investigations turned up anything.

Only a few true cancer clusters exist in the United States, experts say. One example is a cluster of vaginal cancer among the daughters of women who used the drug DES to prevent premature labor in the 1940s and '50s.

But Grace Koehl isn't convinced. She said that she knows at least 20 people on Kemp Lane with cancer and a good number on Shookstown Road battling the disease as well.

The 80-year-old grew up on a farm at Detrick and said four out of her seven siblings have had cancer. Mrs. Koehl also has a niece and two nephews that have been diagnosed.

"It seems like we all got it and we never had this before in our families," Mrs. Koehl said.

"When you get three dead in their 40s from cancer, and when you look out of your houses and you see Detrick ... it's telling you something."

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