Scientists Provide Update on Drinking Water Contaminants Study Beginning on Cape Cod

HYANNIS – Scientists working on a five-year research project on Cape Cod to study contaminants in drinking water updated the community Thursday at Barnstable Town Hall in Hyannis.

The STEEP Superfund Research Project by Harvard University, University of Rhode Island and the Silent Spring Institute aims to understand how the contaminants, or PFASs, impact the public through well water, determine where they are coming from and find ways to limit exposure.

PFASs are a class of chemicals added to consumer products that make them non-stick, waterproof and stain resistant. They are also used in industrial processes and firefighting foams.

STEEP Superfund Research Program Director Rainer Lohmann says concerns about the effects of the contaminants have reached federal officials in Washington but not much is being done.

The Environmental Protection Agency is withholding a study from being published which indicates drinking water guidelines should be updated.

“Our hope is that with public pressure the EPA will release the report from the ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and hopefully that will help make sure that drinking water guidelines protect all Americans from PFASs, from these chemicals,” Lohmann said.

Over the course of the five-year STEEP research project, researchers will test up to 50 private wells in the region each year over the next 5 years for a total of 250 homes.

The owners of the wells selected will receive a personalized report of the test results. The researchers will also help interpret the results and give them as much information as possible about potential health effects and potential sources of contamination.

“We’ll start offering drinking water testing across the Cape to get an idea of if and how far the contamination has spread and what concentration they are exposed to and if that might be a problem or not,” Lohmann said. “Again that all ties back to what levels are safe and that’s an ongoing discussion.”

Some states have moved forward with drinking water guidelines with much lower levels of the acceptable amount of the contaminants than federal guidelines.

Residents can sign up for private well testing at the STEEP Superfund Research Project website by clicking here.

Researchers will measure the concentrations of PFASs, compare results to other wells in the area, and how it compares to current regulatory guidelines.

Lohmann said scientists are still unsure what products used by consumers contain these chemicals.

“If you want to be safe, microwavable popcorn is high on everybody’s list,” he said. “Not every bag has it but some do so that would be an easy one to [avoid].”

Lohmann said there is also a concern for food contact paper, which may contain the chemicals. Manufacturers are aware and are beginning to phase the chemicals out.

“At this point nobody can tell whether it is in any given product you buy or not,” he said.

Philippe Grandjean, the co-director of the project from Harvard University’s School of Public Health, said we are way behind when it comes to perfluorinated compounds.

“It was already known decades ago that there were health risks from these compounds, but nothing happened,” Grandjean said. “Now we are trying to, with a substantial delay, learn what has gone wrong and try to help mending that very unfortunate situation.”

Grandjean said the compounds can be cleaned from drinking water but not much can be done to remove the PFASs from the groundwater.

“We cannot remove the environmental pollution,” he said.

Grandjean said we need to learn that we can benefit from industrial production, but that we need to be selective and not put public health in a dangerous place.

“We need to use chemistry in a much more prudent way than we have done in the past,” he said.

PFASs are a broad category of chemicals and polymers with an estimation of more than 3,000.

The chemicals that have been studied have been linked to harmful health effects, including cancer, effects on the immune system, impacts on metabolic and liver function, and certain adverse effects in pregnancy.

Drinking water is a major concern, but exposure can also come from other products, including microwave popcorn or waterproof coating on upholstery or rugs.

Other highlights from STEEP Science Day included a screening of the documentary “The Island and the Whales,” which tells the story of a community in Northern Europe where residents are reducing their consumption of whale meat due to health concerns related to PFASs.


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