Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Fort Detrick's Area B has been used for disposal of chemical, biological, and radiological material, storage of explosives, and research activities. The groundwater of Area B was contaminated by perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), which leaked from storage drums buried in Area B. Members of the public who live near Fort Detrick in Frederick County, Maryland, are concerned that the contaminated groundwater might have affected their health. This report reviews two investigations of potential health hazards: a 2009 public health assessment conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and a cancer investigation in Frederick County by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Frederick County Health Department.

Key Messages

  • The committee found limitations in ATSDR's assessment which makes the scientific soundness and quality of the conclusions that can be drawn questionable. Thus, the committee disagreed with ATSDR's conclusion that the available environmental and health data are adequate for concluding that past exposures to the groundwater were unlikely to produce any harmful health effects. Because the available measurements of PCE and TCE were inadequate for forming reasonable estimates of past exposure, the committee judged that no conclusions could be drawn about the likelihood of adverse health effects. Thus, the committee concluded that Area B groundwater presented an indeterminate public-health hazard.
  • The Maryland cancer investigation was performed well and appropriately acknowledged its limitations. The committee concurred with the conclusion that there is no evidence from the available cancer-registry data that total cancer rates in Frederick County and the census tracts that surround Fort Detrick are different from those in Maryland. It also agreed that the rates of lymphoma appear to be greater in the three census tracts closest to Fort Detrick than in Maryland, and supported the Maryland and Frederick health departments' plans to explore that finding further. The findings from this study neither support nor refute an association between Area B groundwater contamination and the occurrence of cancer.
  • The committee was asked to consider whether additional studies should be performed that would be helpful in addressing the question of whether any health outcomes might be related to contaminated groundwater in Area B. After careful consideration, the committee concluded that unless contaminant measurements from the past are discovered, additional studies would not be useful in assessing hazards.
  • In communicating the results of this study to the general public, the Army should recognize that the tendency of local residents to hold the Army responsible for their cancers and other diseases is primarily a function of distrust. It should ensure that evidence in support of conclusions is publicly available, easily comprehensible, and is placed in appropriate context. The Army should engage in activities, beyond health reviews, that build trust with the community.