Silent Spring Institute briefing: Our water is less safe than before

Testing of private drinking wells begins this month
Private wells are biggest source of pollutants, our water is less safe

By Gerald Rogovin

Testing of private drinking wells begins this month for pharmaceuticals, hormones and household chemicals leaching from septic tanks across Cape Cod.

The new study renews the effort by Silent Spring Institute (SSI) to track potential exposures to pollutants in private wells, a bigger source of pollutants than public wells.

SSI reported last May that the Cape's drinking water was still safe, but getting less so. Their findings were based on tests of public wells in Chatham, Brewster, Buzzards Bay, Dennis, Falmouth and four water districts in Barnstable.

11 of Cape's towns had breast cancer rates at least 15 percent higher than the rest of state.

The nonprofit research organization has been studying the region's drinking water since 1993, when it found that 11 of the 15 Cape towns had breast cancer rates at least 15 percent higher than those in the rest of Massachusetts.

"This is the case because of our high reliance on septic systems and the shallow, sandy aquifer here, which allows chemicals in groundwater to move relatively fast, leaving less time for natural breakdown processes," said Cheryl Osimo, SSI's area outreach coordinator.

Testing of the private wells was reported on by Dr. Laurel Schaider, an SSI research scientist, Wednesday at Barnstable Town Hall. She said that her research team is seeking area residents with private wells.

"We will be studying private wells throughout the Cape where we expect levels of contaminants will be even higher." - Dr. Laurel Schaider.

"This second phase of our campaign is going forward in a few different directions," Dr. Schaider said at Wednesday's briefing. "We will be studying private wells throughout the Cape where we expect levels of contaminants will be even higher."

Funding for the study has been obtained, she said. A report on the tests is expected early in 2011, she added.

"Private wells have limited buffer zones, and are located in residential areas in which septic systems are more likely to be present. Public wells are surrounded by a 400-foot radius area in which land development is not permitted. They're known as Zone 1 areas," said Schaider. "There are also restrictions on land use in larger Zone 2 areas."

Several lower Cape Cod towns rely on private wells for their drinking water to a much larger extent. Truro Health Conservation Agent Pat Pajaron told Cap CodToday.com that part of her town's population uses town wells. "But we have mostly private wells," she reported.

One-third of the town's wells are tested every year for the presence of nitrates. The program goes into effect for new construction, the replacement of housing and/or when a home changes owners. The town requires testing for volatile organics.

The program, according to Pajaron, is separate from others mandated by Truro's Water Resources Oversight Committee.

Eastham residents embraced the program

Eastham's situation is similar, although older. For the past 10 years, the town has tested all of its wells for nitrates. Until 2004, the program was voluntary and was overseen by the Water Management Committee. That year, town staff became involved when Eastham residents embraced the program.

"Response has been 60 to 70 percent of the population," said Jane Crowley, Health Agent. We're going to complete the second full round of testing at the end of this fiscal year (6/30/11).

"We divide Eastham into thirds, sending vials to homeowners. They fill them, and return them to us. We respond, reporting our findings from the tests. About 2,000 vials are used each year," she said.

When a new well is installed, it receives extensive testing for volatile organisms and about 30 compounds altogether, Crowley said.

"We know that several of our residents will be among those whose wells are tested by Silent Spring. With no municipal water supply available to the town, our residents are concerned about the presence of contaminants in their drinking water.

Tests of 20 wells and two distribution systems in nine water districts revealed that a majority of samples contained contaminants at parts-per-trillion levels.

Schaider reported on Wednesday the results of the study completed six months ago by SSI. It found pharmaceuticals and consumer product chemicals in the Cape's public drinking water wells. Tests of 20 wells and two distribution systems in nine water districts revealed that a majority of samples contained contaminants at parts-per-trillion levels.

What that means, she said, is that chemicals in household and commercial wastewater can seep from septic systems into groundwater, and make their way into the Cape's drinking water.

Pharmaceuticals, flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals -- usually found in non-stick and stain-resistant products -- were the most frequently detected.

Wells with higher levels of nitrate and boron, both of which originate in septic systems, and wells in areas of more residential development tended to have higher levels of those chemicals.

SSI's report concluded that the region's drinking water remains safe. But if Cape Codders don't stop flushing prescription and over-the-counter drugs, chemicals and other contaminants down the toilet and sink drains, it could be a different story.

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