Thursday, March 3, 2011
Bill would require deeper look into causes of cancer
State senator says cancer rate near Fort Detrick is ‘alarming’
by Katherine Heerbrandt | Staff Writer
A sponsor of legislation to make the state’s health department measure environmental causes of cancer says he is annoyed by the department’s response and believes it is not taking the bill seriously enough.
Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Prince George’s County, along with Sens. Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) of Prince George’s and Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Montgomery County, want the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to include more information on possible environmental causes of cancer in its biennial cancer report to the governor and the General Assembly.
Specifically, Senate Bill 574 requires the department to “measure possible environmental causes of certain cancers, including certain chemical agents and toxins” found in air, water and soil.
Members of the Kristen Renee Foundation, which has launched its own investigation into the link between cancer and environmental contamination at Fort Detrick, testified in favor of the legislation at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the bill on Feb. 24.
Muse said the proposed bill was not a response to a specific area in the state, but would cover statewide concerns where occurrences of certain cancer have a higher incidence rate, particularly within families, that might be attributed to environmental factors.
The foundation has rallied hundreds in Frederick to share their stories of cancer and why they believe Detrick’s research activities may be a contributing factor.
The foundation is named for former pastor Randy White’s daughter, who died of brain cancer at 30 in 2008. Her mother, Debra Cross, died in November at age 54 of renal cancer.
Both lived near Detrick and White and his family believe Detrick is to blame.
White said he has spent nearly $700,000 to investigate a cancer cluster, and does not believe that the one currently undertaken by the county and state health department is using enough relevant data to make it useful.
As of Jan. 13, 2011, the Kristen Renee Foundation has mapped 862 cancer victims who live in proximity to Detrick.
“In Frederick, the situation is alarming, but it is incumbent on us to look at areas throughout the state,” Muse said.
The bill’s sponsors requested that the health department inform the Senate Finance Committee about the fiscal impact of such a bill, but health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein said that the information is included in another state report and there’s no need for additional funding.
“The Department already produces a report that addresses the issues,” Sharfstein said in a Feb. 17 letter addressed to Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, (D-Dist. 28) of Charles County, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
But Sen. Muse said he believes the state does not investigate environmental causes of cancer to the extent it should, and that the state has an obligation to its residents to ferret out possible environmental sources of cancer.
“That letter said nothing,” Muse said in an interview. “They [the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] are misreading our request with that response. They have to report back to us on how they will handle this legislation.”
He said his committee can direct the health department to respond appropriately by giving more detailed information on what funding would be needed to do more research on environmental factors that might be to blame in areas where there is a high concentration of cancers.
The report that Sharfstein references in his letter to the Finance Committee gives some general information about environmental issues and cancer, but for the most part, the chapter talks about the difficulties in making the connection between cancer and the environment.
“Most of the time it is very difficult to answer that link definitively,” said Clifford Mitchell, the health department’s assistant director for environmental health and food protection.
When doctors can make that connection, he added, it is usually the exception and not the rule.
Mitchell said he understands that people want to find a relationship between the environment and cancer, but that the health department has “a mechanism in place to do that.”
“Part of the department’s response to the bill may be that it didn’t appear that the biennial cancer report was necessarily the right vehicle for this question to be answered,” he said. “The department is anxious to work with Sen. Muse to help answer the question in a way that meets his needs and the needs of his constituents.”
Barbara Brookmyer, Frederick County’s health officer who is working on a cancer cluster study with the state health department, said there are many barriers to making a direct link between cancer and exposure to environmental toxins.
“We are trying to find ways to get proxy information and fill in the gaps by making use of everyone’s data,” she said. “We recognize that there’s no perfect way.”
After the foundation’s presentation to the Finance Committee, Muse said there was consensus on the part of the committee that the problems in Frederick are “of such magnitude and so alarming, that there should have been a congressional hearing on the matter.”
That is music to White’s ears, who has said for months that he wants Detrick officials and others take an oath to tell the truth about the link between cancer and the fort’s history of groundwater contamination and Agent Orange research.
“We’ve been asking for that all along,” White said in an interview. “Until now we have been playing in Detrick’s sandbox. Now we are actually stepping out of that box and are in the big leagues now. … The light is starting to shine, and it is time to tell the truth.”
No officials from the Frederick County delegation have signed on to the bill. “No one asked us,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Dist. 4), chair of the delegation.
But he added that he would support a study, and believes asking for additional information on the causes of cancer is a “legitimate” request.