Tainted Water Linked to Cancer, SPH Study Shows
Toxic Wastes Contribute to Woburn's High Leukemia Rate
WOBURN--Angry citizens of the town of Woburn last night received backing from a team of Harvard researchers for their suspicions that contaminated well water was responsible for the unusually high rate of childhood leukemia and birth defects in the town's population.
At a crowded town meeting, two professors from the School of Public Health (SPH) told an anxious audience of over 200 townspeople, many of whom had brought small children, that they had positively correlated the higher health risks of some Woburn residents to the amount of exposure they had had to the water.
In the period 1969-1983, the number of observed leukemia cases in the town of 36,000, located 12 miles north of Boston, was nearly two and a half times the national average.
Although the number of actual diseases attributable to the water is small, Associate Professor of Biostatistics Dr. Stephen W. Lagakos said, "any excess is too much."
Lagakos and Professor of Statistical Science Martin Zelen proceeded to describe in detail the findings of their two-year study, which is believed the first such study to be conducted jointly with community members.
The report showed that 21 percent of the water drunk by leukemia victims came from the contaminated wells, compared to 10 percent for a control group.
In addition to examining childhood leukemia, the team studied the instances of reproductive disorders, including miscarriage and stillbirth as well as other forms of cancer.
While they found no relation between the amount of exposure to contaminated water and miscarriage, they concluded there is a positive correlation for perinatal deaths (stillbirth and death within a week of birth), birth defects, including Down's syndrome, and chromosomal abnormalities.
In addition, the tainted water was responsible for some cases of respiratory, urinary, skin, and neurological disorders.
"It's kind of shocking to finally hear it," said Patricia Kane, whose son was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two.
"He's 13 now; he's cured," she said, smiling, adding that the treatment took 10 years, including seven years of chemotherapy.
"Not too many [Wobum lcukemic] children survived," she said, adding, "I feel very, very lucky."
The citizens have been concerned for over a decade about the possible health hazards posed by the Industriplex dump site in northeastern Woburn, which was rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the fourth worst toxic waste site in the country.
Used for over 130 years by chemical plants and tanneries for the disposal of heavy metals, organic chemicals generated by pesticides, and animal remnants, the dump has been found to contain large quantities of hazardous wastes.
The contaminated water came from two wells which were shut down in 1979 when organic wastes, including a known carcinogen, were discovered in the water.
"On a positive note," Lagakos said, "all associations we found were related to the wells, and they've been turned off for four years."
However, the researchers said they were not certain to what extent the health risks are decreasing since the shutdown.
Citing the difficulty of drawing conclusions from limited data, Zelen explained, "We're talking about diseases that rarely hap- pen. There may not be enough follow up time for an adequate answer to whether the risks will decimal.
The conclusions the group did draw, however have ended years of uncertainty for Woburn residents, after the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) and the Center for Disease Control could not determine a correlation of disease to the water supply.
"They identified a cluster of childhood leukemia and renal [kidney] eancer," said the Rev. Bruce Young. "They made a statement: 'Yes, you're right, there's lot of leukemia in Woburn. But that was it. They said they didn't have the money or manpower to help us," added Young, who helped form a group of concerned citizens who sought definitive answers to their questions.
The group. For A Cleaner Environment (FACE) was started by mothers who had lost children to the disease, and it grew to include many other concerned citizens.
In 1982, members of FACE were invited to participate in a seminar at APH, part of a weekly series of meetings with community residents sponsored by SPll's community Health Improvement Program.
Zelen and I agakos heard the group's concerns and offered in early not an in depth study if FACE would supply volunteers to conduct telephone interviews to guiltier data on residents health histories and respite to the water supply.
During the summer of 1982, more than 300 volunteers collected data on 7000 households, or 54 percent of the town's population.
Lagahies rejected suggestions that MDPH had been negligent in not continuing its sickly, explaining that such a follow-up would be extremely costly. He and Zelen estimated that if their study had been commissioned and per formed without volunteers, it would have cost between $500,000 and $750,000.
EACE members had become concerned as it result of the highly publicized Love Canal incident, in when if won believed that a toggle ward she in New York State had caused genetic demanders.
Dean of SPHI word limit said yesterday. O my knowledge, the Love Cural studies showed no more, and perhaps and even its much of a bashed as wodworth."
Although young said he was uncertain what action community members might take as a result of the SPH findings, FACE founding member Donna Robbins, whose son died recently at the age of nine, said that "six or seven families have gotten together to sue" suety of the companies responsible for the to sins.
At the end of the meeting, the researchers and Young answered questions from the residents, One man asked, "if you found not you lived in a town like ours, where the cancer rates are so much higher than the national average, how would you feel? Would you want to leave?"
Young answered. "Well, with the interest rates, and the scarcity of jobs, it doesn't really make sense to leave Wohurn. We're sort of in a Catch-22 situation."