Randy White had just buried a daughter, dead at 30 with a brain tumor. Now his other daughter had been diagnosed with growths in her abdomen.
When doctors told White in 2009 that their conditions were likely caused by something in their environment, the Frederick native thought of Fort Detrick. His children had grown up near the Army base.
Detrick was home to the nation's biological weapons program from the 1940s through the 1960s. It remains a key center for medical research.
"Anybody that lives in Frederick knows all the rumors," White says. "It's kind of like, 'Fort Detrick, they created anthrax, we knew that, smallpox …' It just clicked for me."
For decades, Frederick residents had speculated about the possible effects of the experiments at the base on the health of the surrounding community. But it took a grieving father with scientists, lawyers and money — White says he has spent more than $1 million so far — to drag questions about contamination and cancer out into the open.
White hired epidemiologists and toxicologists to monitor the air, soil and water around Detrick. He asked neighbors about their health histories and paid for lab tests to measure the toxins in their blood. He shared his findings with government officials.
The county and state health departments are now studying the cancer rate within a two-mile radius of the base. The Army has released details of Agent Orange testing. And local, state and federal officials are meeting regularly with the community to discuss their progress.
"Without him standing there shaking his hands and dancing around, it would not have gotten this much attention," says Jennifer Peppe Hahn, a survivor of Hodgkin's lymphoma, growths on her pancreas and thyroid, and breast cancer.
"When Randy came forward about his daughter's death," she says, "somebody had enough money and enough passion at that point that nobody could ignore it."
White, a former evangelical pastor and a businessman who first contacted officials last year, is demanding information about activities at Fort Detrick past and present, an apology to the people he believes were sickened, and a congressional hearing "so this never, ever happens again in the United States of America."
He also has filed a mass tort lawsuit. He has been joined by more than 100 fellow plaintiffs.
"I didn't want to fight, but the fight kind of came to me," says White, 53. "I had lost my daughter, and then my other daughter was so sick. Our whole motive behind this thing was just to bring resolve and full disclosure."
The Army says it has no indication that Fort Detrick is currently contaminating its surroundings, and it is responding to the community's concerns.
State health officials, who are studying the incidence of cancer in the area during the last two decades, say they have found no evidence of a cluster.
But White says the state's cancer registry is incomplete and out of date. He says his own scientists have found continuing contamination.
"Everything I say is backed up by scientific fact," he says. "It's not something we just dream up. … We just want the truth."
Fort Detrick is a 1,200-acre campus in northern Frederick that today is home to a variety of military and civilian organizations involved in medical research and development, including a National Cancer Institute facility. For years, it was known primarily for its work on biological warfare agents, including anthrax and smallpox.
Scientists developed and tested biological agents there from World War II until 1969, when President Richard Nixon banned research into offensive biological warfare. Since then, researchers have focused on defending against biological attack.
They used Area B, a 399-acre tract on the western side of the base, as a proving ground to test methods of delivering biological agents. The area also was used as a dump for castoff laboratory equipment and materials.
Anthrax was buried in Area B, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, though the Army says it wasn't the type that can make people sick. Army records also indicate the spraying and disposal of a small quantity of herbicides or weed-killers, including the active ingredients of Agent Orange, the defoliant that was sprayed extensively by the military in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
But the most widespread chemical threats found around Fort Detrick have been more commonplace: trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), both solvents used for degreasing metal and in dry cleaning. Both chemical are known carcinogens.
The chemicals showed up in groundwater on the base, and in 1992 state officials found unsafe levels of TCE in the drinking water of four homes just outside Area B. The Army connected three of the homes to public water; the fourth house was torn down, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
In the late 1990s, high levels of the two cleaning chemicals were detected in a spring that flows into Carroll Creek, which runs past the base and through downtown Frederick. Those levels, a thousand or more times the amount EPA has said is safe to consume in drinking water, fell a month later to around the safety threshold, state officials say.
Since then, the Army has dug up chemical containers and biological and medical waste from Area B. It has also excavated and removed almost 4,000 tons of contaminated soil, according to the state.
Groundwater contamination in monitoring wells on the base has decreased but remains high. Federal and state officials became impatient several years ago with what they considered foot-dragging by the Army, and the EPA in 2009 put Area B on its list of Superfund priority cleanup sites.
The Army signed a legally enforceable cleanup agreement last year with EPA and the state.
To help reduce the spread of groundwater contamination, the Army has "capped" six old dump sites with several layers of plastic, clay and clean dirt, through which rainfall cannot soak.
Horacio Tablada, waste management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the attention drawn to Fort Detrick by White has led state regulators to step up their own involvement.
"We believe that right now there's no impact on public health outside the base," Tablada says. But he said officials would like the Army to do more testing to be sure. Trace levels of TCE showed up six years ago in two wells west of Area B.
Military officials are working to sink 150 new monitoring wells to get a better idea of where the chemicals might be seeping underground, and they're planning more sampling off the base as well. They plan ultimately to pump and treat the tainted water.
"We have no indication right now of any contamination flowing outside our property," says Robert Sperling, Detrick's chief of public affairs.
Of the dumping and the use of herbicides on the base decades ago, Sperling says the practices were considered safe at the time.
"We're trying to do better now," he says.
In Frederick last week, Clifford Mitchell, with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told residents that the number of diagnoses among those living within two miles of the base from 1992 through 2008 — the only period for which the state has data – did not differ significantly from those for Frederick County or Maryland as a whole.
Those findings echoed earlier reports. White disputes them.
He says his team — a group of varying size that he says has grown at times to as many as 10 paid professionals and up to 40 volunteers — has counted hundreds of cancer cases not listed in the state registry.
They include one family that has lost 17 members to cancer, and another that has lost 11. White says his team has found 1,200 cancers in two ZIP codes alone and 118 on a single street: Shookstown Road, which runs along the southern edge of Area B.
White was born and raised in Frederick, and returned after high school to raise a family. He and his wife had three children before divorcing in the early 1990s.
He left for Florida, where he helped found and lead a growing church in Tampa. His ex-wife and children stayed in Frederick, where they lived within a mile of the base.
White describes his daughter Kristen Renee as beautiful, vibrant, and "never sick a day in her life" — until the 72-hour period, at age 28, when she suffered a seizure, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given eight months to live. The married mother of two died in April 2008.
Soon after, White says, his other daughter, Angie, "began getting these very abnormal growths."
When doctors said the cause was likely environmental, he hired a microbiologist and chemist from the University of South Florida to begin testing well water and ground samples around Fort Detrick.
"Every one of them came back extremely hot," White says. "When I say 'hot,' I mean full of TCE, PCE, dioxin."
White called a town hall meeting in Frederick in July 2010 and found an audience: Dozens of base neighbors who shared his concerns.
Frederick County Health Officer Barbara Brookmyer agreed to convene a panel with representatives from the Army, the state health and environment departments and the federal EPA to listen to the community's questions.
Officials began the cancer cluster investigation, organized a committee of residents contributing ideas and research of their own, and have scheduled regular meetings to keep the community abreast of their findings.
Brookmyer says the system is working as it should: "with the community driving it."
Mitchell says the state's cancer investigation will continue.
He and others caution it can be extremely difficult to prove that chemical exposure decades ago led to cancers today. "These things kind of remain a mystery," said Thomas Burke, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.
White's daughter Angie has recovered from the growths in her abdomen. But his ex-wife — his daughters' mother — died with renal cell carcinoma in November 2010. And his mother was diagnosed with melanoma last month.
White has spent the last year and a half traveling between Florida and Maryland to press his case. He says now he's planning to return to Frederick full time.
"I think I need to actually have a presence there 24/7 and really, really make this thing happen," he says. "Give it full exposure.
"So I'm looking at homes now. But not around Fort Detrick."
Cancer rates near Fort Detrick
Cancer rates in three Census tracts around Fort Detrick were equal to or slightly lower than expected rates for most cancers based on Frederick County as a whole. Cancer typeObserved*Expected**All1,0591,072Lung/bronchus149141Female breast159161Colorectal102114Prostate141146Brain/central nervous system1117Kidney/ blatter7976Leukemia/lymphoma7971Thyroid2932* Number of cases in Frederick County census tracts 750501, 750700 and 751200
** Expected number of cases based on Frederick County rates, 2000-2007
SOURCE: Maryland Infectious Disease and Environmental Health Administration