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Silent Spring Institute presented to the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners Wednesday, April 7, about the level of certain potentially toxic chemicals in the water on Cape Cod and its current testing for them.

Founded in 1994, Silent Spring Institute is a Massachusetts-based scientific research organization dedicated to uncovering the links between chemicals found in the everyday environment and women’s health, with a focus on breast cancer prevention.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manufactured chemicals that are resistant to degradation and can be found in everyday items such as dental floss, microwavable popcorn bags, non-stick cookware, carpets and others. Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are part of the PFAS group.

Dr. Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at the institute, presented to the commissioners about three ongoing studies that Silent Spring is conducting on PFAS.

One study of those is part of the Sources, Transportation, Exposure & Effects of PFAS Superfund Research Program, or STEEP. This study is seeking to see how PFAS moves in the environment along with exposures and health-related effects. Alyson McCann from the University of Rhode Island, and Dr. Schaider are leading this study.

In 2018, 101 wells across 12 Cape Cod towns were sampled to measure the levels of PFAS in the water. Of the sampled wells, only 3 percent exceeded the Massachusetts standard of 20 parts per trillion for six different chemicals.

Currently, there are no federal regulations for PFAS in drinking water. Back in 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency set a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA. Since then, several states have begun regulations on their own. The Massachusetts standard, which is lower than the EPA guideline, also includes testing for four additional PFAS whereas EPA’s guideline only includes PFOS and PFOA.

PFAS were detected in 46 percent of wells in this study, and 28 percent of wells had two or more PFAS chemicals present. Dr. Shraider said the plan was to test more wells last spring, but the ability to do so was altered because of COVID-19.

Exposure to PFAS is not rare, as 99 percent of Americans have been exposed to it, according to studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although higher amounts can have negative health effects.

Harmful effects linked to high PFAS exposure include kidney and testicular cancer, immune toxicity including decreased vaccine response, elevated cholesterol, developmental effects, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disruption, decreased birth weight, changes in liver enzymes and preeclampsia.

The other two studies underway by Silent Spring are attempting to see how PFAS may affect immune system functions in preschool-age children and the other, a larger study funded by the CDC, is examining health effects in adults and children served by the Hyannis water system.

For those with ongoing questions about PFAS, there is an upcoming webinar about their presence in consumer products. Rainer Lohmann, University of Rhode Island STEEP director, and Mark Ells, Barnstable town manager, will be the featured presenters on Wednesday, April 14, from noon to 1 PM. To register, visit web.uri.edu/steep.

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