Citizens on Trail of a Deadly Mystery


They are citizen sleuths investigating a deadly mystery.

Each month, the members of Anne Arundel County's Advisory Task Force on Cancer Control come together to review the clues: statistics on cancer victims, maps of hazardous waste sites and private wells, cancer deaths in dogs, and reports on the hazards of radon and overhead electrical lines.

Halfway through their year-long assignment, the members of the group know there is no single culprit. They know that there are many reasons why Anne Arundel has the second-highest cancer rate in Maryland and why the state ranks third in the country in cancer deaths.

"We know we take a number of hits over our lifetime," says Patricia Troy, the head of the task force.

Each year, doctors in Anne Arundel diagnose about 1,600 cases of cancer and more than 700 people in the county die of the disease.

The committee is hoping simply to see if some evidence has been overlooked, some inkling of a danger we don't yet realize.

So it continues to pour over the data, talk with the experts and ask questions. When it makes its final report this fall, it hopes to have enough evidence to justify funding for a more scientific study.

The 15 citizen researchers come from varied backgrounds. Some are doctors -- an epidemiologist, an oncologist and a veterinarian. Others are ordinary citizens who have had cancer or have had friends and relatives who did.

Ms. Troy lost her mother to lung cancer in 1989. After that, she became active in the American Cancer Society and helped the Greater Severna Park Council for a committee to explore the causes of cancer and educate residents about ways to prevent the disease. Still, she felt it was not enough to have the support of a neighborhood civic organization; she wanted the county's help as well.

County Councilwoman Diane Evans heard the plea, and along with the entire council, sponsored legislation to set up the task force. The task force was approved last May. Five months later, it had its first meeting.

From the start, the members realized their job wouldn't be easy. At their first meeting, they listened while experts told them that there are more than 100 distinct forms of cancer. About 90 percent of those are related to the victims' lifestyles. Smoking is the primary culprit in this category and lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer in Anne Arundel.

The task force has a subcommittee that is trying to find out why the county seems to have such a large number of smokers.

One possibility is that a large number of veterans live in the county. At one time, tobacco was promoted to servicemen and veterans have a higher incidence of smoking than residents who were not in the armed services. The committee also is exploring the possibility that the county's tobacco farming may have encouraged the use of tobacco products.

Besides tobacco use, the subcommittee is looking into the exposure county residents have had to asbestos, chromium, coke oven omissions and arsenic in their jobs.

But while everyone knows that smoking and exposure to harmful chemicals in the workplace can be related to cancer, those explanations alone aren't satisfactory. The task force is looking carefully at the other 10 percent of cancers that scientists say may be caused by the environment.

The task force has another subcommittee looking at low-level risks such as water pollution, air pollution and pesticide residues in food.

A third subcommittee will be trying to map the places where cancer victims live to see if they can discern a pattern. But considering the frequency with which people move, even clusters of cancers in neighborhoods may not necessarily mean that the community is hazardous.

Not surprisingly, most of the interest in the task force work so far has been on what the group has found out about possible environmental causes of the disease. Even though 90 percent of cancers are related to lifestyles, people are more concerned about the killers they don't know about than the ones they do. Everyone already knows about smoking. What about eating crabs from Chesapeake Bay or living in houses under electrical wires? Could they make people sick, too? The task force has no answers yet.

Cancer has been a leading killer in America for a long time. Generations have waited for the day when scientists would announce that they had found a cure. Now the experts tell us there won't be one cure, but a slow unraveling of the mysteries of cancer's causes and its treatments. It's a frustrating wait for those who already suffer from the disease or those who watch friends and family die.

It doesn't seem like it's enough just to quit smoking, watch our diets and get regular check-ups. A disease so devastating deserves quick and certain obliteration, not mere deprivation of opportunity.

The members of the advisory task force warn us that it isn't so simple, but they are doing what they can to unravel the mystery.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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