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It Would Break Your HeartChristopher Myers

"It Would Break Your Heart"

Science vs. experience in a cancer cluster investigation

He calls it the best farmland in the world.

 All around him, the dark soil of Central Maryland’s Frederick Valley rolls in meadows and hills over porous, fractured limestone.

On a late summer day as he stomps through grass and weeds along Shookstown Road in Frederick, Maryland, Bill Krantz says, “Take a look at the soybeans across the road. Look how big they are. You won’t see them that big in the Midwest.”

Krantz has spent most of his 79 years on the land. He swam and fished in the stream, listened to the bullfrogs croak at night, played in the shade of trees his granddaddy planted and baled countless tons of hay. Mostly though, he tended dairy cattle. “We didn’t go on vacation. We just milked,” he says.

Bill Krantz links his family’s cancer deaths to chemicals buried by the U.S. Army.

At first glance, his pastoral Eden remains. The soybeans, the green hills and trees still stretch to the horizon, but history and geology offer a different reality. In 1944, as part of the war effort, the U.S. government claimed some of the Krantzes’ land as well as acreage from other families, dubbing it Area B. The 399 acres became part of the nearby Fort Detrick. The U.S. Army base, about 45 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., would become a center for biomedical research. From 1943 to 1969, work there would also include biological weapons development and testing.

The Krantzes occasionally glimpsed Area B’s research. They saw giant concentric circles cut into a field to measure the effect of the mysterious substances sprayed at the site. They remember smoke from burning pits rising above their houses at night. And Bill Krantz recalls the summer day in 1951 when some of his dad’s cattle suddenly died. (A recent Army report blamed an arsenic-based herbicide for the deaths of eight cows that August.)

Over the decades, Fort Detrick expanded, becoming a renowned research center and the county’s largest employer with 9,200 workers. While the base thrived, however, the Krantz family suffered repeated tragedies. Bill and his cousin Jim say that 13 of the 18 members of their extended family (in their 50s and older) were diagnosed with cancer. “My dad died of pancreatic cancer. My sister died of brain cancer. My wife died of ovarian cancer. My dog died—he was ate up with cancer. My cows had cancer. So they can’t tell me that they didn’t do something,” says Bill Krantz.

Jim Krantz points to the house Bill built in the 1970s (and lived in until his wife got sick) and two next to it and says an occupant of each had a rare blood disease. “Rare is not three in a row. Something caused that,” he says. “All three houses used well water.”

The Krantzes believe that the area’s groundwater was contaminated by the radiological materials, laboratory waste and drums of chemicals buried in Area B. An April 2012 EPA report noted that anthrax, phosgene (a poison gas) and radioactive carbon, sulfur and phosphorous were buried there. Agent Orange was tested on Area B as well. According to the EPA report, a 2004 Army effort to remove contaminated soil, chemical containers, gas cylinders and laboratory waste from disposal pit B-11 discovered “live pathogens,” causing the suspension of further removal efforts.

Fort Detrick declined comment for this article or a Bloomberg School case study, citing possible litigation. The Army did report in 2011 that $50 million had been spent on Area B cleanup and restoration efforts in the previous two decades and that “impermeable caps” had been placed over the dumpsites.

The possibility that chemicals from the base caused a cancer outbreak has roiled the Frederick community. Concerned citizens and public health experts (including Bloomberg School alumni) have sought answers to two deceptively simple questions: Is there a cancer “cluster” in Frederick? And, if so, is Fort Detrick the cause?

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Frederick Voices

Frederick Voices

People from Frederick, Md. and public health professionals talk about a possible cancer cluster and whether it can be linked to nearby Fort Detrick.

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