Is Our Water Causing Cancer?

Drinking Polluted WaterWater pollution can, generally, be classed into two categories: direct and indirect contaminant sources. (1)

Direct sources include discharged outfalls from factories, refineries, and waste treatment plants that release fluids of varying quality directly into urban water supplies.

Indirect sources include toxins that enter the water supply from soil/groundwater systems and from the atmosphere via rain water.

Soil and groundwater contain the residue of human agricultural practices such as nitrate from fertilizers, and improperly disposed of industrial wastes. Atmospheric contaminants are also derived from human practices (such as gaseous emissions from automobiles, factories, and power plants). (2)

Steven Greenleaf, environmental consultant, a graduate of Berkeley and California State Universities says;

When we dump waste, which may contain a variety of chemical residues, or oil, and fail to properly control and handle the chemicals used in our manufacturing processes, and when our landfills are leaking, we are putting ourselves, the future of the nation, and the health of children who have not even been born yet, at risk.

Cancer

Children

In the U.S. in 2007, approximately 10,400 children under age 15 were diagnosed with cancer and about 1,545 children will die from the disease. This makes cancer the leading cause of death by disease among U.S. children 1 to 14 years of age. (3)

Over the past 20 years, there has been some increase in the incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of invasive cancer.   According to the National Cancer Institute, there were 11.5 cases per 100,000 children in 1975 and 14.8 per 100,000 children in 2004.

The causes of childhood cancers are largely unknown. (4)

Environmental causes of childhood cancer have long been suspected by many scientists but have been difficult to pin down, partly because it is difficult to identify past exposure levels in children, particularly during potentially important periods such as pregnancy.

A number of studies are examining suspected or possible risk factors for childhood cancers, including;

  • early-life exposures to infectious agents
  • parental, fetal, or childhood exposures to environmental toxins such as pesticides, solvents, or other household chemicals
  • parental occupational exposures to radiation or chemicals
  • parental medical conditions during pregnancy or before conception
  • maternal diet during pregnancy, and
  • early postnatal feeding patterns and diet. (5)

Adults

Cancer is a growing concern in U.S. States such Montana and Wyoming.   According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the incidence rate of cancer in Montana has increased 17 percent — from 409 per 100,000 people in 1990, to 480 per 100,000 people in 2001. (6)

In Wyoming, the incidence of cancer was 453 per 100,000 in 2001.   Approximately 5,000 Montana residents were diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and approximately 2,060 Montana residents died of cancer last year, making cancer the second leading cause of death in Montana and Wyoming.

Prostate cancer incidence and mortality rates are on the increase in Wyoming men, according to officials at Wyoming Department of Health. From 1998 to 2001, the prostate cancer incidence rate increased from 111.94 cases per 100,000 men to 184.35 cases per 100,000 men in the state. Wyoming Department of Health report diet and dietary factors are considered to be a a main risk factor. (7)

Pollution

Often people fail to realize the effects of pollution on their lives until it is too late, says Greenleaf.

Chemicals which we release into the environment frequently end up in our bodies, or our children’s bodies, sometimes before they have even left the womb. Many chemicals known to cause cancer or other profound health problems are known to “bioaccumulate,” meaning that they accumulate and concentrate in an organism. Bioaccumulation combines with another phenomenon called “biomagnification,” whereby certain substances such as pesticides or heavy metals work their way into water we drink or use to raise crops, move up the food chain, and then into the things we eat. (8)

These toxic substances become more and more concentrated as they move through the environment and make their way to our bodies. Thousands of small, seemingly harmless sources of pollution are actually affecting us in ways we cannot predict.

Drinking Water

One ‘harmless’ source of pollution is drinking water.

China

Almost a quarter of China’s surface water remains so polluted that it is unfit even for industrial use, while less than half of total supplies are drinkable, data from the environment watchdog have showed.

Inspectors from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection tested water samples from the country’s major rivers and lakes in the first half of the year and declared just 49.3 percent to be safe for drinking, up from 48 percent last year, the ministry said in a notice posted on its website. (9)

Despite tougher regulations over the last decade, the ministry has struggled to rein in the thousands of small paper mills, cement factories and chemical plants discharging industrial waste directly into the country’s waterways.

Philippines

In the Philippines, water pollution is claiming the lives of 18 to 25 Filipinos a day. In a year, 4 million people die from water-related diseases which make up 31 percent of all illnesses in the country. One child dies every 20 seconds because of dirty and polluted water. (10)

In a bid to educate Filipinos on harsh impacts of water pollution, Greenpeace Philippines has stepped up its drive against ignorance by exposing figures and data printed in stickers and educational materials.

The aim is to persuade public officials to enact laws that will cover people’s right to know what substances are being dumped into our water bodies, and for industry to disclose their emissions to the public, the group said in a recent statement.

According to Beau Baconguis, toxic campaigner of Greenpeace, water pollution has grave impacts on many countries with “1.5 billion people having no access to clean and safe water”.

In other countries, information has been a factor in the lowering of toxic discharges, Baconguis said.

But not in the State of Wyoming.

Wyoming is bordered on the north by Montana, on the east by South Dakota and Nebraska, on the south by Colorado, on the southwest by Utah, and on the west by Idaho. It is the tenth largest state in the U.S. in total area.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigating drinking water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, found benzene and methane in wells and in groundwater, agency officials said.

The Department of Health and Human Services determined benzene is a known human carcinogen. A carcinogen is a substance with the ability to cause cancer. There may be no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen, so all contact should be completely avoided. (11)

Benzene works by causing cells not to work correctly. For example, it can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells. (12)

In spring 2008, residents of Pavillion — concerned about the quality of their drinking water — contacted the EPA in Denver, Colorado. The agency sampled 39 individual wells (37 residential wells and two municipal wells) in March 2009 and found nitrate, arsenic and methane gas. The agency conducted the second sampling in January 2010.

The use of nitrate fertilizers in growing vegetables could be the cause of the fastest growing cancer in the U.K., research has claimed. Gullet cancer, which claims the lives of more than 3,000 people in the UK every year. (13)

According to a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences, arsenic in drinking water causes bladder, lung and skin cancer, and may cause kidney and liver cancer. (14)

In a February 2000 report, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analyzed data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on arsenic in drinking water in 25 states. Our most conservative estimates based on the data indicated that more than 34 million Americans were drinking tap water supplied by systems containing average levels of arsenic that posed unacceptable cancer risks.

According to the information presently available methane has not been tested for its ability to cause cancer in animals.

Pavillion resident Louis Meeks had this to say;

“My wife Donna and I have lived for the last 32 years on our ranch in Pavillion, Wyoming. In this part of the West, we are very lucky to have an irrigation district that delivers clean water from Wind River to many farmers and ranchers in the area.

We’ve lived around gas development in Pavillion since 1998. But, in 2000 the drilling ramped way up. 100 or more wells, one large compressor plant and a smaller one. That same year our neighbors started having significant problems with their water well. Shortly after the gas company, EnCana, drilled a gas well near my neighbor’s house, his water well began to produce black, nasty water that smelled and tasted like gas.

About seven months later  I decided to drill a new well for the house, since I was pretty sure there were contaminants in it. Upon drilling the new well with a local water well drilling outfit, we hit gas! Our new water well blew out and we were evacuated from our home. The State Homeland Security force and local firefighters closed off roads all around our home until we could get the gas contained without igniting.

I took the deed to our property in order for EnCana to come forward and cement the well off. It was three days before we could go back into the home. We kept hauling our drinking water and only used the well water for household use and showering. During this time we started having funny symptoms, like both of our mouths being dry or Donna’s eyes stinging.

I am watching everything that we’ve worked for be destroyed by the oil and gas industry, and I am afraid to have my grandchild out here to the ranch because of the contamination that is in our water, soil, and in the air.

We had a hydrogeologist and petroleum experts come out to our place and tell us that the gas development and reworking of all these wells through hydraulic fracturing caused the methane to migrate underground. I also worry about all the chemicals from the drilling. Where are they going?”

EPA officials are uncertain if the contaminated shallow groundwater will migrate to the drinking water aquifer, according to the report. The EPA has not reached any conclusions about the sources of chemical compounds found in drinking water wells, including hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, the controversial process used to extract natural gas from underground, agency officials said.

Is there another source?

The EPA has designated F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming as a Superfund site because of its amounts of environmental toxins and threat to the environment.

Operations began at the U.S. Army outpost, in 1867. The name was changed to Fort F. E. Warren in 1930. The Base was a major training facility during and after World War II.  Since 1958, it has served as an operations center for the Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), later for the Minuteman I and III and finally, for the Peace-keeper ICBMs.

Studies identified hazardous substances in 10 general areas (Operable Units) of the Base, including 13 landfills, two fire-protection training areas, six spill sites, base-wide ground water, a firing range, a battery-acid disposal site, and an open burning/open detonation area. Past activities left contamination at the base.  The main contaminants are solvents and a variety of fuels, found in both the soil and ground water.

The base occupies about 6,000 acres immediately west of the City of Cheyenne. It is bordered by agricultural land and suburban homes. Some of the groundwater contaminants had moved beyond the Base boundary to the east. The EPA says residents using contaminated groundwater for drinking water, cooking or bathing could face unacceptable health risks. (15)

Or is it coal mining?

Wyoming coal mines produced 466,319,331 tons of low sulfur coal in 2008 .  This amount of coal accounts for about 40 percent of the nation’s coal.  This coal is used in over 37 different states to generate electricity.

However, mining of coal can result in toxic chemical residues such as nitrogen oxides, which are are an especially visible example of the problem of pollutants. Blasting at strip mines, such as those in the Powder River Basin, produce dense, orange clouds of nitrogen oxides (NO).

Exposure of pregnant animals to nitrogen oxides has resulted in toxic effects in developing fetuses. Nitrogen oxides have  also caused changes in the genetic material of animal cells. But we do not know if exposure to nitrogen oxides might cause developmental effects in humans. (16)

With regard to cancer, various studies have demonstrated roles for NO in the participation in tumor promotion and progression by mediating critical processes, including angiogenesis, tumor cell growth, and invasion. (17)

No standards currently limit such pollution from coal mines. Instead, signs posted along public highways warn of orange clouds, advising people to “avoid contact”.

Perhaps the EPA should warn people in Wyoming  to “avoid drinking water, it may be bad for your health”.

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