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Ever drink the water in Hyannis? Scientists need your help

"Before 2016, the levels of PFAS in the Hyannis water system were higher than in any other public water supply in Massachusetts," says scientist Laurel Schaider, the lead investigator of a study tracking past exposure. PFAS have been linked to cancer and elevated cholesterol.

The water is safe to drink in Hyannis, but it wasn't always that way.

If you lived there between 2006 and 2016, scientists studying water quality want to hear from you this weekend.

During that 10-year period, contamination from a class of chemicals called PFAS was higher in Hyannis’s public drinking water than anywhere else in the state.

Silent Spring Institute is recruiting volunteers on Saturday as part of researching impacts of PFAS exposure, including a higher incidence of breast cancer.

Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary spoke to lead investigator and Silent Spring senior scientist Laurel Schaider about the CDC-funded study.

Patrick Flanary: What do I need to know if I drank water in Hyannis during those 10 years?

Dr. Laurel Schaider: Before 2016, the levels of these PFAS chemicals in the Hyannis water system were elevated above the EPA drinking-water guideline. We actually don't know how long the chemicals were in the water. The presence of these chemicals in the drinking-water supply raises concerns, because exposure has been linked to a wide range of health outcomes: elevated cholesterol, changes in thyroid hormone levels, cancer, and decreased vaccine response following routine vaccinations.

We're doing the study in Hyannis even though the water is now being treated to remove PFAS chemicals because we're concerned about those past exposures that might have occurred, and are wanting to know what we can learn in terms of making links between PFAS exposures and health effects.

PF: Tell me about the link between these chemicals and women's health, particularly the focus on preventing breast cancer.

LS: Silent Spring Institute was founded by visionary women at the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition who were concerned to learn that rates of breast cancer were higher on the Cape and the Islands than in other parts of Massachusetts. And they saw a need for more research to understand those links.

PF: Why is the study focused on Hyannis as opposed to elsewhere on Cape Cod?

LS: Before 2016, the levels of PFAS in the Hyannis water system were higher than in any other public water supply in Massachusetts. The Hyannis water system has done a great job of responding to this issue and putting in treatment. But between the close proximity between the fire-training activities and the drinking-water wells, combined with the shallow groundwater aquifers, that made the Hyannis water system particularly vulnerable.

PF: Generally, should people shift to filtered water, or buy it in bottles?

LS: Here in Massachusetts, the state has implemented one of the strictest standards in the country for PFAS chemicals. So there's a lot of oversight in terms of drinking-water supplies. In some cases people may want an extra level of protection and put a home water filter in. For people on chlorinated-water supplies it doesn't hurt to have a solid carbon block filter. If you live in a house with old piping where lead can be a concern, it's certainly important to flush the first water that comes out of your tap in the morning.

Unless your water has a very serious immediate problem, we don't recommend shifting to bottled water. Bottled water can just be tap water that doesn't necessarily come from a pristine location. There's very little oversight or testing of bottled water. It sits in plastic, so there are concerns about chemicals leaching from the plastic into the water.

PF: Are we at a point where every public water supply should have a PFAS filter?

LS: Unfortunately it's quite expensive to treat water for PFAS. But I think it's very important to do the monitoring as required by the state and to take a precautionary approach.

PF: And how close is this study to a conclusion?

LS: We're really just ramping up our recruitment in the community right now. We are aiming to bring in hundreds of residents, so we're in the beginning phases. We plan to be conducting data collection throughout the summer, but we encourage people to sign up now and take part in the study if they're eligible.

Adults and children older than 3 who lived in Hyannis between May 2006 and July 2016 can attend Saturday's open house at 171 Main St., 11:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m. There participants can schedule appointments to provide blood and urine samples and complete a memory assessment. Email pfas-health-study@silentspring.org.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.