Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Breast Cancer on Cape Cod

Did you realize groundwater feeds our kettle ponds, like Great Pond, above? This is why cancer researchers have been analyzing pond water, as reported at State of the Harbor last Saturday.

Yesterday I journeyed down to Hyannis for the annual Silent Spring Institute research update, scheduled during lunch-hour, a great idea, which allowed fifty people to attend and listen while munching sandwiches. Cheryl Osimo, Outreach Coordinator and Director of Events and Communication for the MA Breast Cancer Coalition, gave background history and explained that John Klimm, our host and Barnstable Town Manager, had been instrumental in helping her get SSI started in the nineties. Again, a statistic that bears repeating: breast cancer rates are approximately 20% higher on Cape Cod than the rest of Massachusetts. SSI researchers are trying to figure out why. Is this difference due to intensive spraying of cranberry bogs in the past? Spraying for gypsy moths? Mosquitoes? DDT has been banned for thirty years but there are still traces in Cape Cod dust. What other synthetic chemicals have gone into our aquifer since then that might explain the high breast cancer rate?

Here are some of the points raised by researchers Laurel Schaider and Robin Dodson:

1.) A new SSI project on pharmaceuticals and hormones in drinking water was completed in October. The public wells chosen are located between Brewster and Falmouth. The goal is to understand the susceptibility of Cape Cod drinking water supplies to contamination by wastewater and evaluate the influence of factors such as land use in recharge areas. Results will be back in a month. The researchers hope to do similar testing on private wells.

2.) Biological mechanism + human exposure = a basis for action. (Please note, only 10% of all breast cancer cases are hereditary.)

3.) Mammary carcinogens damage DNA. Endocrine disruptor compounds (EDCs) make tumors grow.

4.) Numerous chemicals have been found in recent water studies across the country. Many are EDCs. Many do not break down easily. The levels of these chemicals are very low but their presence alone is worrisome, although it is not yet clear whether these low levels have an effect on health.

5.) On Cape Cod, where most people have wells and septic systems, sandy soil allows traces of chemicals to filter into our shallow aquifer.

6.) Babies and developing fetuses are the most at risk.

Robin also provided a no-nonsense list of household tips.

Since I cannot do these two ladies justice, I suggest reading Cynthia McCormick's report in today's Cape Cod Times and seeking additional information at the Silent Spring Institute Web site. Much more research is needed, of course, but headway has been made, and all Cape Codders should feel grateful to Cheryl Osimo and the other SSI founders for their persistence and dedication.

One thing is clear: back in the 1750s, when Cape Codders pumped water up from the aquifer, they did not have to worry whether that water contained traces of synthetic chemicals.

What can the individual do? Eat organic. Filter water. Advocate for pesticide-free green spaces, encourage neighbors to use less toxic products, properly dispose of unused pharmaceuticals. Finally, support Alliance for a Healthier Tomorrow. Spread the word to friends and family members and write a check this fall for Silent Spring, which lost a major donor to the economic crisis, so that this valuable work with continue.

What can the innkeeper do? Go green; spread the word to guests.

What can the writer do? Draw attention to the connection between chemicals in the environment and cancer.

Which brings me to the letter I sent to the EPA in September about NStar’s plan to spray herbicides beneath the power lines, a short distance from Chez Sven, as the blue heron flies. I received a two-page single-spaced response. Not victory, but a tiny first step. EPA New England now plans to do testing once NStar has sprayed in June. The struggle continues!

Do you have a friend or family member who survived breast cancer? Did this diagnosis cause a change in habits and lifestyle? Does she believe environmental factors played a role in her disease?