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,” Bondy said.

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, 50 miles northwest of Washington, 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 Environmental Protection Agency put it on its Superfund cleanup list last year, and the Army has spent millions of dollars in the past decade to clean up its harrowing waste pits.

Because carcinogens have contaminated wells, “a lot of people still get bottled water delivered to them by the Army,” Rice said.

White’s family used the city’s water system, so they shouldn’t have consumed contaminated tap water.

But scientists determined that vapors rising through the ground from the discarded chemicals had seeped into the Whites’ home.

“Vapor intrusion, dioxins, Agent Orange,” White said.

Enraged, he formed the Kristen Renee Foundation, named for his late daughter. In the past two years, he has plowed about $200,000 of his own money into the effort to link the chemicals dumped at Fort Detrick to decades of deaths in the community.

He hired researchers, doctors and chemists to prove his hunch that his hometown is host to one of America’s largest cancer clusters. Over the years, cancer has been found in 400 people within two miles of White’s former home in Frederick, he learned.

Some of the people have shown up at community forums, sharing their stories, comparing notes, demanding that the U.S. Army help pay their medical bills and clean up their land.

Now Barbara Brookmyer, Frederick County’s health officer, is investigating whether there is a cancer cluster near Fort Detrick.

Chuck Gordon, a spokesman for Fort Detrick, said the base is cooperating with her efforts.

“It’s not Fort Detrick’s place to delve into public-health issues,” he said. “We fully support the Frederick County Health Department as lead agency for public health and are urging anyone who approaches us with any such info to follow the proper chain and work with Dr. Brookmyer.”

White, however, thinks the Army, rather than a county doctor, should step in.

A charismatic megachurch pastor with spiky blond hair and funky eyeglasses that proclaim him hipper than most men of the cloth, White holds up reams of reports when he talks about the research he’s done. He stands beside a huge picture of his smiling, champagne-blond daughter, Kristen.

“This is an environmental disaster much larger than the gulf spill,” said White, who is considering a class-action lawsuit against the Army.

But even if he’s able to prove that the cancer cluster exists, and even if he succeeds in holding the Army accountable, it can’t change the terrible health consequences for hundreds of devastated families. Including his own.

 

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.