If you get your drinking water from a private well, a team of public health researchers would like you to volunteer for their study of harmful chemicals in the aquifer.
Specifically, researchers are looking for wells that may be contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a group of chemicals linked with chronic health problems.
Often associated with airports and fire training academies where certain types of firefighting foam have been used, PFAS are also present in commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products like Teflon, polishes, waxes, paints and cleaning products. PFAS can also be found in some pizza boxes and in food processed or grown in places where the chemicals are present. According to the EPA, they are very persistent in the environment and can accumulate over time in fish, animals and humans.
Because they accumulate in the body, long-term exposure to PFAS can cause health problems. Studies in laboratory animals show that they can cause reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney ailments, tumors and immunological problems. People with higher exposures to the chemicals often have high cholesterol levels and sometimes suffer from low infant birth weights, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption.
Using Superfund research monies through the National Institutes of Health, the University of Rhode Island is conducting the study with Harvard University and the Silent Spring Institute. The project has been dubbed STEEP, for Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFAS.
Like other substances, PFAS can seep into the ground and migrate through groundwater, ending up in drinking water wells.
Dr. Laurel Schaider, research scientist with the Silent Spring Institute, said the study aims to test 50 private wells on the Cape each year over the next five years, and wells will be chosen from areas that may be impacted by PFAS contamination. The water samples will be collected by the University of Rhode Island and the Silent Spring Institute, which has spent decades studying potential environmental links to cancer on the Cape. Participation in the study takes about three hours.
Though airports and fire training facilities are often hot spots for PFAS, one goal of the study is to identify other potential sources of the chemicals, Schaider said. Another Silent Spring study indicated that highly fluoridated chemicals and pharmaceuticals can become concentrated in the human body and can pass through into the environment.
“Septic systems can be a source of these contaminants,” she said. The study might yield other types of land uses that are sources, like former landfills or even certain small businesses, Schaider said.
Most people on Cape Cod get their drinking water from municipal water systems, but because PFAS are not subject to enforceable drinking water standards, there is no regular testing for these substances, Schaider said. The EPA classifies them as unregulated contaminants, and a study of a number of such contaminants in Cape Cod Water systems showed no detectable levels in most municipal water systems, with the exception of certain public wells in Barnstable and Mashpee.
Hundreds of Cape Codders rely on wells on their own property for potable water. In Orleans, there are around 200 private wells in use, many of them in the Mayflower Point neighborhood. Harwich has around 100 private wells, and Chatham officials cannot specify how many private drinking water wells are in town. Many of the private wells on Cape Cod are for irrigation purposes, officials say.
Participants in the STEEP study will receive reports on their individual water testing results, and researchers will also help them interpret that data. While summaries of the data will be publicized, participants’ individual names and addresses will not be disclosed.
For additional information or to sign up for STEEP, visit www.URI.edu/STEEP, or call Dr. Laurel Schaider at 617-332-4288 ext. 224, or Alyson McCann at 401-874-5398.