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Originally published February 09, 2013, Frederick News Post
In Maryland, cancer is the second-highest cause of death, especially in Eastern Shore counties. State Sen. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, is again attempting to have the state investigate why.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four Marylanders die due to cancer each year, only slightly behind deaths from heart disease. More than 24,000 Marylanders are diagnosed with invasive cancer each year, which is the leading killer in adults between 25 and 64. And Muse wants to know what's behind it....
The legislation would bring together cancer-patient advocates, representatives of academic medical institutions, lawmakers, scientists and environmentalists as a work group to examine the potential environmental factors that might be behind several possible cancer clusters in the state.
Muse has submitted the bill several times, each year collecting more co-sponsors. This year, Sen. Ron Young, who represents District 3, which includes Frederick, has signed on as a co-sponsor.
This legislation could be potentially meaningful to Frederick, which circumscribes Fort Detrick, a military post that has historically researched weaponizing biological agents. Although agencies at Detrick have long since turned to more peaceful applications of science, investigating ways to protect the military from biological weapons, decades of research and lax handling of potentially dangerous agents have left areas of the 1,200-acre property contaminated, chemically and biologically.
Area B, for example, had been actively used since 1946, initially as a test site, and also as a landfill for test animals, chemical-filled drums and biological waste. To Detrick's credit, leadership at the base has emphasized cleaning up these sites.
The perennial fear among past and present nearby residents continues to be what effect on their health they face from chemicals that leached into and contaminated groundwater from Area B, including wells.
Over the past few years, the nonprofit Kristen Renee Foundation, based in Florida and led by evangelical preacher Randy White, has attempted to connect past research to a cancer cluster around the Army post that they claim totals more than 1,000 people. White believes Detrick played some part in the death of his 30-year-old daughter from brain cancer.
The group's efforts to capture media attention and full-page ads in The Frederick News-Post have effectively reignited old fears and rumors about the base. The group has gone quiet since White, its founder and most vocal advocate, was charged with DUI in 2011 and entered rehab.
However, while long on accusation and short on proof, and promising a class-action suit that has yet to materialize, the foundation did raise a good question. What's causing this cluster?
Frederick County's cancer rate, which, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, isn't that far from the national rate, is nothing like the rates elsewhere in Maryland.
The state already does much to collect and detail cases of cancer in Maryland. DHMH is required by state law to compile and present to the General Assembly biennial reports on cancer. Fort Detrick's potentially harmful effects on neighbors have been well-studied. The spotlight needs to be broadened to take in more of the state in an effort to pinpoint factors that could contribute to cancer.
Look at the map in the "Maryland Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan" published by DHMH. From 2002 to 2006, Cecil, Caroline, Dorchester and Wicomico counties on the Eastern Shore, and Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties in southern Maryland, were all 10 to 25 percent above the U.S. cancer rate. Somerset, at the tip of Maryland's part of the Chesapeake Bay, and Baltimore city were more than 25 percent higher than the national rate (186.7 deaths per 100,000 people).
That's nine of 24 jurisdictions in Maryland with a higher death rate from cancer than elsewhere in the country.
Your guess is as good as ours as to why. And here we return to the point of Muse's legislation, and why we support it. It's time to find out.