Cancer-cluster theory on paper, rage in father's heart

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, August 6, 2010

It began with a neighbor dying, then an uncle who lived down the street, then all the livestock on one Maryland farm fell dead, one cow after another.

And then it hit closer to home -- a wife fell terminally ill and a young daughter was gone.

The pattern became familiar, the stories swapped between neighbors sounding more and more alike: cancer, tumors, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukemia.

The Rice family has lost 12 members to leukemia alone.

"That's not counting brain, breast, all of those other cancers," said Diane Rice, 55, who survived breast cancer. "You just know that's not right. Something is not right."

Over their fences, at community picnics but mostly at funerals, the people of one Frederick neighborhood near Fort Detrick wondered whether it was just a horrible coincidence that so many of them had cancer.

It's become a familiar scenario. Cinematic, even, thanks to the amazing story of Erin Brockovich, who helped prove that a utility company had been poisoning the water supply of Hinkley, Calif., for more than 30 years. A small town's residents soaked in grief and armed to the teeth with lab reports, statistics and analyses step forward to prove that they are, in fact, a cancer cluster and not just an unfortunate collection of tragedies.

And, of course, following close behind them are the cluster-busters.

"There have only been a few reported cancer clusters that have proven to be real clusters," Melissa Bondy, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, wrote in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. "People get alarmed when they hear about cancers at various sites in an area. There have been some that epidemiologists have been able to untangle, but most cancer clusters have not been well documented. They usually don't pan out to be anything."

Try telling that to Randy White, whose 30-year-old daughter died of brain tumors in 2008. Now his ex-wife has stage four renal cancer, and another daughter has stomach tumors.

White grew up in Frederick and raised his family there. But when the Whites moved to Florida and began getting sick, a doctor looked collectively at their illnesses and told them that they weren't genetic, they were environmental.

They immediately looked to their former next-door neighbor, Fort Detrick, where anthrax and Agent Orange were studied for decades and where about 400 acres known as Area B were used for storage and dumping. The EPA put it on its Superfund cleanup list last year, and the Army has been spending millions of dollars in the past decade to clean up its harrowing waste pits.

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