Laurel Schaider drinks Hyannis’ tap water.
“Mostly in coffee,” she said with a laugh.
It’s a small but important sign that the Silent Spring Institute research scientist is confident in the work Barnstable town officials have done to cut the amount of dangerous chemicals within the municipal water supply.
But before town officials recognized the problem more than five years ago, people across Hyannis were drinking the contaminated water.
Now, Schaider and her colleagues at the institute, the first organization to find PFAS chemicals in Cape Cod drinking water, are trying to assess the scale of the effects the contaminated water might have had on humans’ health.
The organization is leading two studies designed to explore the health consequences of consuming PFAS-tainted water, and researchers are in desperate need of volunteers to participate.
The institute Tuesday night hosted a virtual community kickoff for the first study, with hopes that 900 people will eventually sign on.
To request information about eligibility for either study, contact the researchers at 617-600-8348, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.pfas-exchange.org/childrenstudy.
The man-made compounds of concern are part of a class of more than 9,000 chemicals called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are linked to health problems, including increased cholesterol, cancer, immune system effects and thyroid hormone disruption, among others.
Most PFAS are unregulated, and some are still used to manufacture everyday products, including pizza boxes, cookware and stain repellents. PFAS are also used in a type of foam called AFFF designed to extinguish fires from gasoline, oil and jet fuel.
Although septic systems and landfills can be sources of PFAS contamination because of the ubiquity of the chemicals in consumer products, sites that used AFFF firefighting foam have done the most damage to Cape Cod drinking water supplies.
“There are several locations on the Cape where AFFF has contaminated the groundwater,” Schaider told the Barnstable County Commission earlier this year. “These include Joint Base Cape Cod, the Barnstable County fire training area and the airport.”
In 2015, Barnstable officials closed two public drinking water wells off Mary Dunn Road near the Barnstable County Fire and Rescue Training Academy, which used firefighting foam containing PFAS until at least 2014.
Lab results showed the well water had levels of a harmful PFAS compound called PFOS that exceeded a federal health advisory.
“The levels found in some of the Hyannis wells were in the top 1% of samples across the country and the highest levels found in Massachusetts at that time,” Schaider said.
When the results came in, town officials invoked a rarely used emergency charter provision that allowed for the immediate allocation of $744,000 to buy carbon treatment units to clean the water. To avoid a water shortage, the town also began buying water from neighboring Yarmouth.
By 2016, the town had installed carbon treatment systems on three Mary Dunn Road wells contaminated by PFAS. The efforts helped. In July of that year, Department of Public Works Director Dan Santos announced the levels of PFAS in the wells were below the limit suggested in the federal health advisory.
Schaider called Barnstable town officials leaders in their willingness and work to remove PFAS from the town drinking water supply, an ongoing task in part because of increasingly strict limits imposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“They were really ahead of the curve,” she said.
Starting with Tuesday night’s meeting, those working on the Silent Spring studies are now looking for people across Hyannis who were drinking the contaminated water.
The studies will look for potential health effects of drinking PFAS-contaminated water in people who lived in Hyannis and Ayer, where drinking water contamination has been linked to the former Fort Devens military installation.
For the Massachusetts PFAS and Your Health Study, which is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, researchers are hoping to recruit 200 children age 4 to 17 who lived in Hyannis between 2006 and 2016, and 700 adults who lived in Hyannis between 2006 and 2016. Children could also be eligible if their mothers lived in Hyannis during that time.
Researchers will work with a lab to analyze blood and urine samples from participants, who will also fill out questionnaires about medical history, residency and water consumption. Children participating in the study will also take neurobehavioral tests aimed at assessing learning and memory.
In addition to receiving reports showing individualized results of the assessments, participants will be given between $50 and $75 in gift cards.
The second study, called the PFAS Research, Education and Action for Community Health (REACH) study, is focused on learning more about the effects PFAS-contaminated drinking water can have on children’s immune systems, including decreased antibody response to routine vaccinations.
The study, which will also look at the effects PFAS contamination has had on children who spent time near the Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has taken on new relevance as the nation races to vaccinate people against COVID-19.
“We’re all thinking about vaccines and antibody levels in ways that no one used to think about,” Schaider said. “There’s no evidence yet that the vaccine would not work or would not be as effective in people with high PFAS exposures. But it’s a brand-new illness, brand-new vaccine, and it’s an important question.”
Researchers will use a new method called metabolomics that could give scientists new information about how PFAS acts in the body, and why the chemicals can have such harmful effects on people.
“Which receptor are they binding to? What are they actually doing in our body? This new metabolomics method gets a little bit more of a molecular view of how the PFAS might be harmful, so it’s another way to look at their toxicity,” Schaider said.
To be eligible for the REACH study, children need to be preschool age with mothers who lived or worked in Hyannis prior to 2016.
As with the Massachusetts PFAS and Your Health Study, participants will volunteer blood and urine samples and fill out questionnaires about medical history, residency and water consumption. Participants will also answer text-message surveys about symptoms of infectious diseases.
Those who volunteer for the REACH study, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, can get up to $100 in gift cards, as well as customized reports on the children’s test results.
Researchers need to recruit 60 children with ties to Hyannis for the study.
Because of the overlap in eligibility, some people might be eligible to participate in both studies, which will be based at a recently opened field office on Main Street in Hyannis, Schaider said.
Both studies suffered major delays because of the pandemic. Schaider said the research team was gearing up to begin enrolling participants in February 2020 when everything shut down, and it wasn’t possible to get the word out in person. It was also a difficult time to get people to pay attention to anything but the challenges of the pandemic.
Study participant recruitment efforts, which will ramp up in June with more community outreach, are now urgent.
“We have lost time in terms of understanding the highest levels of exposure because now we’re looking years after the water mitigation has been in place,” Schaider said.
But Silent Spring researchers are hoping that people will be able to make space in their lives to contribute to the studies, which could shed new light on chemicals that scientists are still working to understand and governments are still trying to regulate.
“The water in Hyannis is now being treated for PFAS,” Schaider said, “but in many other communities there are still higher levels of PFAS chemicals, and the information from the studies can be used to make sure that drinking water standards are adequate to protect people’s health.”
Contact Jeannette Hinkle at email@example.com.
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