On our sandy peninsula, groundwater issues are ever more controversial concerns about nitrogen in the bays, phosphorus in the ponds and costs to residents, but researchers at Silent Spring Institute in Newton are peering into another corner of the kerfluffle.
For decades people have been flushing hormones and drugs, which don’t break down particularly fast, into not only the ponds but the drinking water supply.
David Dow, head of the Cape and Islands Sierra Club, helped organize a forum on emerging contaminants in the groundwater, that was held last week in Falmouth.
“It was to initiate a dialogue and address concerns as we upgrade the wastewater structure on Cape Cod,” he explained. “The Silent Spring Institute and the Sierra Club both feel we should do something about endocrine disrupters, pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products.”
Hormones such as androstenedione, estrone, progesterone and the drugs ibuprofen, meprobamate, trimethoprim, pentoxifylline, suylfamethoxazole and carbamazepine have been found in Cape Cod ponds by SSI. Pentoxifylline, for example, is a blood thinner, trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole are antibiotics, carbamazepine an anticonvulsant.
“The first thing people need to do,” Dow said, “is follow the suggestions of Silent Spring Institute in ways that can reduce their use and for pharmaceuticals we should also have a collection project just as we do for household toxins – instead of people pouring (unused drugs) down the toilet.”
It is possible also to remove them from drinking water when the water is treated.
But hormones are natural and drugs are good, so advertisements tell us.
“The health effects of exposure to low levels aren’t known at this point,” Dr. Laurel Schaider of SSI explained. “But pharmaceuticals are designed to be active at low levels and there are concerns; an infant’s system is more sensitive. And then there is the additional effect of mixtures.”
SSI has looked at six different ponds on Cape Cod, considering them as a lens into the groundwater and is planning to sample the drinking water in different towns.
“Silent Spring has been doing work on the water on Cape for over a decade,” Schaider said. “We’ve tested groundwater, drinking water and detected endocrine disrupters and pharmaceuticals in all kinds of water.”
The levels were greater in the ponds surrounded by more people. They also discovered them in groundwater downstream from a leach field in Sandwich.
“It showed the chemicals being discharged from the system traveled in the groundwater and didn’t degrade much,” noted SSI’s head scientist Ruthann Rudel. “The Cape has a higher vulnerability in the water supply because of the sandy soil, rapid groundwater flow and low organic content. The Cape has fairly close development to have septic systems as the primary way dealing with wastewater.”
“The health effects have been better studied in fish and other organisms,” Schaider noted.
“Male fish have become feminized and produced eggs due to low levels of hormones.”
The institute originally was investigating elevated (20 percent higher) breast cancer rates on Cape Cod that are not explained by the older population.
“Endocrine disrupters that mimic estrogen may play a role in breast cancer,” Schaider said, “because we know lifetime exposure to estrogens in the body can play a role in getting breast cancer.”
“When the frequency of women taking hormone replacement therapy has gone down, breast cancer incidence goes down,” Rudel added.
The new project will look at public water supplies in Buzzards Bay, Dennis, Falmouth, Chatham, Brewster and four districts in Barnstable.
“We’ll be getting raw untreated water from the wells,” Schaider said. “We’ll have results sometime in the spring.”
Hormones can affect sexual development, fertility and possibly cancer rates in other hormonally sensitive organs, such as the prostrate gland.
“All the discussions about our groundwater focus on nitrogen. We thought other chemicals should be part of the discussion,” Schaider concluded.