Concern for Lower Cape's private wells

80 percent of Cape homes use septic tank


   Cape Cod is a 70-mile long sandbar with no real aquifer as on the mainland. Being surrounded by the sea created unique problem, but there are several steps residents can take to reduce their exposure levels to these and other potential contaminants, the researchers noted. They can check local guidelines for proper disposal of hazardous products and unused medications; use fewer and simpler cleaning chemicals; avoid purchase of stain-resistant, antimicrobial, and fragranced products; properly maintain septic systems; and support local efforts to protect groundwater. Art courtesy of SSI.

Silent Spring Institute has tested Cape's drinking water for 18 years

By Gerald Rogovin

Silent Spring Institute's (SSI) ongoing research into hormonal pollutants leaching from septic systems into groundwater and drinking water supplies on Cape Cod appear to be continuing the results of earlier studies: the region's drinking water remains safe.

But concentrations of chemicals found in personal care products, prescription and over-the-counter drugs and in households that mimic hormones still concern public health officials.

More than 80 percent of the Cape's households use septic systems to treat wastewater.

Lower Cape private wells more vulnerable to septic system impacts than public wells.

Dr. Laurel Schaider, a research scientist with SSI, reported Wednesday afternoon the results of testing private drinking wells in Brewster, Eastham, Orleans, Truro and Wellfleet. Eighteen months ago, SSI disclosed its plans for these tests because it suspected them of being more vulnerable to septic system impacts than public wells.

Ninety-two contaminants were detected in public water wells in Chatham, Brewster, Buzzards Bay, Dennis, Falmouth and four water districts in Barnstable in the fall of 2009, and reported on in May, 2010.

Wednesday's presentation in the Eastham Town Hall described the organization's latest findings. SSI has been testing the Cape's drinking water for 18 years. It was drawn to studies of the area in 1993, when it was found that 11 of the region's 15 towns had breast cancer rates at least 15 percent higher than those in the rest of Massachusetts .

Read the report from May 2010 Cape's Drinking Water is  safe

Nationwide, one of every four citizens relies on septic tanks, according to SSI. In earlier tests of public water wells here, Schaider said that herbicides, caffeine, penicillin, nicotine, antibiotics, testosterone, facial creams and other hormones regularly turn up in public water wells. At the time she said that all are routinely flushed down drains, sinks and toilets by Cape residents.

Schaider, who has been the lead investigator in the SSI studies, said that her presentation Wednesday was made in Eastham because the Cape's private water wells are located primarily on the Lower Cape. But SSI's most recent testing also included private wells in Barnstable, Falmouth and Sandwich.

From the SSI report:

Low levels of pharmaceuticals and other common household chemicals - presumably coming from septic systems - were detected in a study of 20 private drinking water wells on Cape Cod, according to results released today by Silent Spring Institute.
   It is unknown whether or to what degree it may be harmful to drink water containing these "emerging contaminants," for which there are no enforceable drinking water standards.

The latest study is limited to 20 wells. Originally, 40 were selected, then then pared down to 20 as the testing got under way. What this means, according to Jane Crowley, Eastham's Health Agent, is that the study is not so random as earlier ones. "It also means that no sweeping conclusions are in order," she said. "But any new information is good information."

"There's no smoking gun here, but there could be a correlation revealed by endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic estrogen." - Patricia Pajaron, Truro's Health and Conservation Agent.

Three of every four water wells in Truro are private, she said. One-third are tested every year by the town's Water Resource Oversight Committee, primarily for nitrates.

Few private wells exist in Brewster or Orleans, according to Nancy Ice, Brewster's Health Director, and Bob Canning, Health Agent for Orleans. Almost every household is on
town water.

"There's no smoking gun here, but there could be a correlation revealed by endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic estrogen." - Patricia Pajaron, Truro's Health and Conservation Agent.

"We're a small town with a small municipal water supply," said Hillary Greenberg, Wellfleet Health Agent. "It's been hard for us to test because of cost and our own technical
limits.

"Yet, SSI's thrust is confusing. It seems as though you'd have to drink thousands of gallons of water to become contaminated. But SSI tells us that is not the way to look at it.

Yet, at a recent meeting of the water protection collaborative, the reaction to Wednesday's presentation, although in preliminary form, was similar," Greenberg said.

"Our results demonstrate the widespread impact of wastewater, primarily from septic systems, on Cape Cod groundwater and drinking water quality," Schaider said. "Many Cape communities are facing challenging decisions about reducing the impact of nutrients on Cape water quality. These findings clearly show that the issue of emerging contaminants also needs attention."

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