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How Many Cancer Cases Does it Take to Be Classified a Cancer Cluster?

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August 22, 2010

In Frederick, MD, a town surrounding Fort Detrick U.S. Army Garrison, residents wonder just how many of them must become a cancer statistic before it is considered a cancer cluster.

AOL News reports the story of Randy White who lost one daughter to brain cancer, has another daughter diagnosed with a rare stomach cancer and an ex-wife with renal cancer. Their doctors at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL told them environmental factors appeared to have caused the cancers, not genetics. White believes his family suffered exposure to cancer-causing materials in the environment while living many years near Fort Detrick in Frederick, MD.

Fort Detrick currently encompasses an area of 1,200 acres and hosts a variety of medical related research and development. However, from 1943 to 1969 it was the center of the United States’ biological weapons program, testing biological warfare such as Agent Orange.

On 399 acres called Area B, the army tested its biological warfare materials and later used it as a disposal site for chemical, biological and radiological materials. A list of materials used or disposed of in Area B is unavailable, although it is known that the Army disposed of Anthrax, acids and chemicals, radioactive carbon, sulfur, and phosphorous; and a lethal chemical agent called Phosgene at the site.

The U.S. outlawed the biological weapons program in 1969 and since then the government has performed several cleanup operations at Area B, but contamination remains.

Sampling of ground water and residential wells around Fort Detrick has shown volatile organic compounds (VOC) trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE) contamination from Fort Detrick operations and toxic waste. Most of the drinking water wells in close proximity to Fort Detrick have been closed, and residents provided with public water or bottled water.

A residential community is located within 100 feet of the Area B disposal areas.

In April 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added Area B of Fort Detrick to the National Priorities List and designated it a Superfund site.

The White family is not the only family affected by cancer near Fort Detrick. The Washington Post reports that more than 400 people within a two-mile radius of where White used to live with his family have developed cancer. Residents told of incidences of cancer, tumors, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia. One family lost 12 members to leukemia.

Randy White started the Kristen Renee Foundation, in honor of his daughter to find a cure for brain cancer. He has spent more than $250,000 of his own money to investigate and document contamination and cancer cases in the Fort Detrick area. Scientists have found that contaminants seeped into White’s family home in Frederick by vapor intrusion.

The Frederick County Health Department is now investigating if incidences of cancer near Fort Detrick are indeed a cancer cluster.

There is no defined number of cancer cases to qualify as a cancer cluster. A disease cluster is the occurrence of a greater than expected number of cases of a particular disease within a group of people, a geographic area or a period of time.