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Hyannis residents sought for study of ‘forever chemicals,’ information session planned

Chris Ledda, Town of Barnstable Video Specialist

Silent Spring Institute will hold an informational event at Barnstable Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 16, to recruit Hyannis residents for a study about exposure to chemicals called PFAS.

The Massachusetts PFAS & Your Health Study is part of a national effort launched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate communities across the country — including Hyannis — that have been impacted by PFAS contaminants in drinking water, primarily from the use of firefighting foams at nearby fire training areas. Scientists involved in the research say similar “groundbreaking” studies are being conducted in six other states.

Locally, the researchers are seeking to enroll people who lived in Hyannis for any period of time between May 2006 and July 2016. Before 2016, levels of PFAS in the Hyannis water system were higher than in any other public water supply in Massachusetts.

“The great news is that the water supply is now being treated for PFAS,” said Laurel Schaider, project lead and senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute, a research organization dedicated to discovering environmental causes of cancer. “However, from these past exposures, we have an opportunity to learn more about how these chemicals can affect our health.”

Exposure to the so-called “forever chemicals” has been linked to liver damage, thyroid disease, and cancer. They’re found in many grease-resistant, stain-resident, and water-resistant products, among others.

“We're enrolling both adults and children ages 4 to 17. Children can be eligible if their mothers lived in Hyannis during that period of time, or if the children themselves lived in Hyannis during that period of time,” she said.

Schaider and her team will be collecting data through the end of May, and so far, just over 200 adults and around 25 children have taken part in the studies.

“We are pretty far from our goal,” she said. “We have established a goal for our team to recruit 700 adults and 200 children from the Hyannis area.”

Participants will be invited to a clinic set up at 171 Main St., outside of downtown Hyannis. Researchers will check blood pressure, measure height and weight, collect blood and urine samples, and ask some health screening questions. Later, they’ll ask questions about where participants have lived and worked over time, and how they have consumed water.

“It’s a lot like going to the doctor,” Schaider said. “And then for children ages 5 to 17, we invite those children to come back for a second office visit where we administer what are called neurobehavioral tests. So these are vocabulary exercises and drawing exercises and puzzles. They're designed to assess learning and memory. ”

Participants will be given gift cards, and they will receive information about their health.

“[We] can provide individuals with a sense of the extent of their exposure, how they compare to other Americans or to people in their community. And as we learn more about people’s health effects, this can be part of your medical record,” Schaider said. “And in the future it might help you or your doctors have a heightened awareness of certain types of diseases that you might be at elevated risk for.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently issued a report that recommended people who may have had elevated exposures should be offered PFAS blood testing. But for most people, she said, trying to get one of these tests is difficult.

“Insurance doesn't necessarily cover the cost. And if you try to get the test on your own, it can cost you hundreds of dollars.”

The informational event, which will feature an overview from Schaider, along with comments from Town Manager Mark Ells and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition’s Cheryl Osimo, will take place in the Second Floor Hearing Room at Barnstable Town Hall, 367 Main Street, Hyannis, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Community members are encouraged to learn about the study’s goals, sign up to participate, and find out other ways to get involved.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.