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Continued deaths mean ongoing questions re: Fort Detrick

Since the 1980s, residents near Fort Detrick in Maryland have been speculating about what effects base experiments may have had on the health of the nearby community. Now, the state health department is performing a large scale study on the rate of cancer growth in residents within two miles of the base. It's in response to continuing outcries over possible worker injury and wrongful death in the area.

The base was the site of development and testing of biological testing. Among chemicals of concern is what we know as "Agent Orange." Anthrax is known to have been buried on some of the grounds, but the Army says it wasn't a type that would make people sick. Testing shows that the most common threat found around the camp comes from trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). Both are common solvents used in degreasing metal and dry cleaning.

Adding fuel to the fire is the recent declaration by the EPA that TCE is a dangerous carcinogen. The agency says exposure can come through breathing it, drinking it, or washing in it. The man-made material came into widespread use just after World War II as a metal degreaser and general cleaner.

TCE and PCE have both shown up in groundwater on the base, and in 1992 the discovery of TCE in four homes prompted the Army to switch three of the homes to the public water system. The fourth home was reportedly torn down. Beyond serving as a testing site for biological weapons until they were banned in 1969, the military base also served as a dump for laboratory equipment and, as has been noted, hazardous supplies.

With the results of some recent tests, community members finally have hope that their concerns may be answered. For some it may be too late. Hundreds of people are suspected to have died of cancer. The EPA remains concerned about the large presence of TCE. It's on the base and in the local community, too. Because of its now common presence in the environment, the EPA suggests that possible contamination of well water, soil, and air could be a national threat.

Source:, Baltimore Sun, "A Search for Answers to Cancers Near Fort Detrick," Matthew Hay Brown and Timothy B. Wheeler, Oct. 10, 2011

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