This Is What Happens When Our Institutions Fail to Protect Us


Michal Zebede and Shiza Shahid

May 06, 2016


Michal Zebede is a screenwriter and producer known for the social-justice news show ASPIREist. Shiza Shahid is the co-founder of the Malala Fund, a host on ASPIREist, a social entrepreneur, speaker and women’s rights advocate.

Correction appended, May 6, 2016.

We like to believe that here in the U.S. we are protected. We like to believe that the institutions that have been put in place to protect us run like well-oiled machines, precisely according to plan. But oftentimes, it's the rigidity of these bureaucratic systems—and the failure to see beyond the narrow box of a singular job description—that can be most dangerous.

In the small town of Frederick, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., a man named Randy White lost both his wife, Debra, and his 28-year-old daughter, Kristen, herself a mother of two, to cancer. Many households in his neighborhood have a similar story. According to the Kirsten Renee Foundation, there are now 1,300 documented cancer victims living within a one-mile radius.

Conducting investigative research for our new TV show ASPIREist, environmentalist Philippe Cousteau Jr. and producer Spencer Wilking traveled to Frederick to find out more.

This area of high cancer rates is adjacent to a U.S. military base called Fort Detrick. From 1943-1969, the fort was a center of the U.S. biological weapons program and performed research on chemicals including Agent Orange and anthrax, weaponized botulism and radioactive carbon.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, some of these substances were buried in a part of Fort Detrick called “Area B.” The lawsuit alleges that this contaminated the aquifer that feeds into the stream that runs through downtown Fredrick. In 2009 a report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry foundcontaminants in the the groundwater but said exposure was not expected to cause health effects.

Devastated by the loss of his dearest ones, White became an activist. He hired scientists, conducted research and filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. army—Erin Brockovich style. There is also a petition to the Secretary of the Army and Congress demanding that this toxic waste be cleaned up. The Army has denied links to cancer deaths and asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuits.

Under U.S. law, the task of fixing Frederick’s deadly cancer cluster falls under no one’s job description, at Fort Detrick or beyond. Although the army has acknowledged that the site is toxic, it has not acknowledged that this is a problem for the neighboring citizens. The Center for Disease Control has given Fort Detrick the highest biosafety level (level 4), meaning that the biological agents housed there are so dangerous, that the highest level of precautions are necessary to keep these agents contained.

The lives of the residents of Frederick have fallen through the cracks of our protective institutions. Hundreds of families have been destroyed. More than 14,000 have signed a petition to clean up the site. For White, this occupied every moment of his existence. “It’s changed my life so radically, sometimes I don’t even know who I am.”

Correction: The previous version of this article misstated the chemicals found near Fort Detrick. They include Agent Orange, anthrax, weaponized botulism and radioactive carbon.


Cancer-cluster theory on paper, rage in father's heart

By Petula Dvorak

Friday, August 6, 2010

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."

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 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 EPA put it on its Superfund cleanup list last year, and the Army has been spending 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 it 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 home town 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 them 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. A community forum will be held Thursday to hear residents' stories.

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.

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Army denies claims that Fort Detrick caused cancer deaths

By DAVID DISHNEAU - Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015


The Army said Tuesday it has denied more than 100 claims seeking millions of dollars in compensation for cancer deaths and other illnesses allegedly caused by chemicals buried or tested decades ago at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland.

The denials set the stage for a likely federal lawsuit, said a lawyer for a group that orchestrated the filings.

“We’re dealing with some people who are facing a lifetime of cancer treatments,” said Mike Hugo, a Framingham, Massachusetts, attorney retained by the Kristen Renee Foundation of Tampa, Florida. “We’re talking about families who have lost parents young.”

The foundation is led by former televangelist Randy White and named for a daughter who grew up near Fort Detrick and died of brain cancer in 2008. Her mother, White’s ex-wife Debra Cross, died of kidney cancer in November.

The U.S. Army Claims Service, headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, sent out letters last month denying 106 of 110 claims filed, Fort Detrick spokeswoman Lanessa Hill said. She said there’s been no determination yet on the four remaining claims. Two of those were by people contending they couldn’t sell their homes due to contamination fears, and the other two were health claims that lacked documentation, Hills said.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, those who were denied compensation have six months in which to file lawsuits seeking damages.

Plaintiffs seek $750 million in Fort Detrick pollution suit

The Associated Press

Critics of Fort Detrick in Frederick have filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking $750 million for injuries they say were caused by the Army's reckless handling of chemical and biological toxins.

Post officials didn't immediately return calls about the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The plaintiffs include family members of Kristen Renee Hernandez, who died from brain cancer in 2008. The lawsuit also seeks compensation for untold others for deaths or illnesses allegedly caused by living near Fort Detrick.

The lawsuit cites groundwater contamination from chemicals buried decades ago. It also mentions Cold War-era anthrax research and Agent Orange experiments during the Vietnam War.

A state public health investigation in 2011 found no statistically significant evidence of cancer clusters within 2 miles of Fort Detrick.

$750M Lawsuit Claims Army Recklessly Handled Toxins Which Killed People In Md.


August 21, 2015 11:20 PM By Rick Ritter

FREDERICK, Md. (WJZ)–A group of people battling cancer in Frederick, who lost loved ones, are suing Fort Detrick for $750 million.

The lawsuit claims the Army recklessly handled chemical toxins in the past which lead to the death of some workers and those who lived nearby.

WJZ’s Rick Ritter has the latest.

Outrage and disgust for Louise Mason, it’s pain that’s lingered for years.

“Why is our government not protecting us, the people?” she says.

Mason says she’s had many side effects as the time go by and it continues to get worse.

The Frederick native lost her father to a deadly disease and now battles cancer herself.

Mason is just one of many pointing the finger at Fort Detrick.

“What happened was a wrong was made and it was never made right,” said Angie Piper, President, Kristen Renee Foundation.

A $750-million lawsuit accuses the Army of recklessly and negligently handling toxic chemicals–citing Agent Orange experiments during the Vietnam War–that ultimately led to diseases and deaths of dozens of people who worked at Fort Detrick or lived nearby.

Angie Piper’s mother died of kidney cancer and her sister passed with a brain tumor.

Their family grew up within a mile of the base.

The state’s health department was unable to find cancer clusters near Fort Detrick. They say the cancer rate in this area is very similar to the county’s and the state’s.

In February, more than 100 families had their claims of health problems denied. The Massachusetts lawyer leading their charge against the Army says he hasn’t got any response from the government.

“They’ve done nothing what so ever, no phone call, letter email or anything that’s come from us government to show they have any concern or empathy for the families and the lives they destroyed,” said Attorney Michael Hugo.

Many are still hoping to get their day in court.

Hugo says he’s unsure how many people may eventually be part of the class action suit. He says some people are seeking money for medical testing to give them peace of mind.

A state public health investigation in 2011 found no significant evidence of cancer clusters within 2 miles of Fort Detrick.

WJZ has been unable to reach Fort Detrick for comment.