Groundwater Contaminants in Cape Cod Could Be to Blame for High Breast Cancer Rates

“This is not yet in an alarming stage but minute exposure of the contaminants can add up in the near future and can causes health issues.”


Dann Wunderlich/ Senior Staff Photographer
Dann Wunderlich/ Senior Staff Photographer

Brewster, Mass, Oct. 8, 2013 – According to reports published at Wicked Local Estham, a non-profit researchers from Silent Spring Institute have recently discovered that there are nearly undetectable drugs, pesticides, fire retardants, artificial hormones, caffeine, insect repellants, antibiotics and more in the groundwater in Cape Cod.

Tired of hearing about wastewater, runoff, fertilizers and nutrient pollution of the ground water? Well, there are nearly undetectable and untreated chemicals in the groundwater to worry about as well: drugs used and unused, pesticides, fire retardants, artificial hormones, caffeine, insect repellants, antibiotics, and more – it’ll all show up again when we turn on the faucet or take a swim.

While the amounts may be small, almost immeasurable at parts per trillion, if you’re imbibing on a daily basis, decade after decade, the exposure adds up, according to researchers who spoke in Hyannis Wednesday.
“The best example is the drug DES,” Dr, Jim Erban, director of the Tufts Cancer Center told a crowd at the Silent Spring Institute’s research update Wednesday, “which was used until 1971 to prevent premature labor. Women would take it for several months before birth. Were it not for the fact a very rare cancer appeared decades later we would not have known low levels of exposure could cause cancer. And there is some evidence the daughters of these women have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, 40 years later, a two month exposure to the drug.”
The Silent Spring Institute is a non-profit research center founded in 1991. The founders wanted to look beyond treatments and seek out preventable causes of breast cancer in women. Since the breast cancer rate on Cape Cod is 20 percent above the national average they’ve focused their research here for the past 15 years and are investigating emerging contaminants in the ground water.
“Breast cancer studies suggest 20 to 25 percent is genetics and the rest is environmental causes. It’s the things we do eating, exercising, what we’re exposed to,” Erban said.
For many years breast cancer cases were increasing across the U.S. until they leveled off at 200,000 to 250,000 a year. China is now experiencing a similar rise.
“So it’s a problem of affluence and environmental exposure,” Erban noted.
SSI has refined the techniques over the past 20 years.
“Our analytical techniques are getting better and we’re getting a handle on chemicals and where they are in the water,” Dr. Laurel Schaider explained. “These chemicals are not regulated and there is no set list. Alot of our research is on endocrine disruptors; examples would be bisphenol A (used in plastic bottles), DDT, PCBs, PBDE (a flame retardant). There’s concern low levels of endocrine disruptors cause effects you don’t see when you study higher levels.”

So they’ve monitored wells on Cape Cod, measuring more than 90 chemicals in parts per trillions.
In a study published this year in the Journal of Total Environment they looked at wells in nine of 17 Cape water districts. Twenty wells, private and public, were tested. Out of 92 chemicals tested 18 were detected: nine pharmaceuticals, two insect repellants, five flame retardants and two others.
“Pharmaceuticals were found most frequently,” Schaider noted. “For two pharmaceuticals (sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic and phenytoin, a anticonvulsant) the highest levels found were exceeded maximum concentrations in other U.S. drinking water untreated water in other countries.”
Currently nothing much is done to remove these trace chemicals.
Wastewater treatment is not designed to remove emerging contaminants,” Schaider said. “The particular concern here on the Cape is that it is a sole source aquifer. We want to understand what happens to the chemicals as they move through the treatment process and ground.”
Schaider pointed out when someone takes a drug they’re ingesting concentrations millions of times greater.
“But one reason we should still be concerned is we don’t give pharmaceuticals to you all the time,” she added.
If it’s in the drinking water you’re on a 40-year dose.
Concentrations of one synthetic estrogen, in parts per trillion, caused the flathead minnow population in a lake to crash.
“So parts per trillion can have bio-relevance,” Schaider pointed out. “Exposure in our own homes, of flame retardants in a couch, or a rug, is much higher.”
This type of work is expensive, $1,800 per sample, so in their latest report they analyzed data from 16 other studies, whittled a list of 35 chemicals down to nine and used it estimate possible contaminant levels around the Cape.
Most (85 percent) of the Cape is on septic systems. They looked at chemical levels in the tank; leach field and ground water to see how microbes or particles on matter filtered them out.
In some cases (acetaminophen, caffeine) septic tanks successfully removed 99-percent of the chemicals. In others, (TCEP, a flame retardant) most of the chemical leached into the groundwater.
Looking at densities of septic systems and/or treatment facilities around Cape wells and wastewater discharge rates the study modeled potential contaminant levels in public wells in Barnstable, private wells in Eastham and several watersheds – and tested that against their measured levels in eight wells.
One conclusion was that individual private wells in densely developed areas, such as Eastham, may have greater levels of contaminants overall – in fact predicted levels in Eastham (where Silent Spring Institute has not conducted studies) “were generally higher than those associated with recharge areas for public wells”.

Public wells in Hyannisport had the highest estimated levels of all the wells, followed in most cases by private wells in Eastham. Lewis Bay in Hyannis/Yarmouth had extremely high estimated levels.
The next step is to look at alternative systems, such as eco-toilets, to see if they effectively remove potential contaminants.
“Can we divert pollution at the source?” asked Schaider.
Schaider had suggestions for what people could do if they’re concerned; use a carbon block filter on their tap, don’t flush chemicals and drugs, reduce the use of household products containing harmful chemicals, protect well discharge areas and support land acquisition around wells, use plain water, baking soda and vinegar for cleaning and products with plant based ingredients.
The institute and their work is privately funded. For more information go to their website:
Media Contact:
Wicked Local Eastham
5 Namskaket Road,
Orleans, MA 02653 02642
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