For nearly 20 years, New Englanders drank and bathed in water without knowing it was laced with a neurotoxin. The chemical leached into the water from vinyl coating sprayed inside water pipes in the late 1960s in response to complaints the water smelled and tasted funny.
More than half of New England’s 1,050 miles of water pipes sprayed with the contaminant are in Massachusetts, mostly in the Cape Cod region. The poison, tetrachloroethylene or PCE, still widely used in dry cleaning, wasn’t discovered in the water supply until 1979.
A new study published in the journal Environmental Health shows that the exposure to the poison is linked to increased risk for stillbirths and other pregnancy complications.
Researchers led by Ann Aschengrau of Boston University School of Public Health surveyed women in eight contaminated Cape Cod towns who gave birth to one or more babies between 1969 and 1983.
They compared 1,091 PCE-exposed pregnancies to the same number of unexposed pregnancies from 1,766 women. The level of exposure to the poison was estimated using water-distribution modeling software. They determined how long each woman had been exposed to the poison by pinpointing the date she lived in a house served by contaminated pipes.
They found that pregnancies with high exposure to PCE were 2.4 times more likely to end with stillborn babies and 1.4 times more likely to experience placental abruption — when the placenta peels away from uterine wall before delivery, causing the mother to bleed and the baby to lose oxygen — compared with pregnancies never exposed to PCE. Pregnancies with the greatest exposure had a 35 percent higher risk of abruption.
They also found a moderately greater risk of vaginal bleeding in pregnancies in which women had PCE exposure greater than or equal to a sample median.
“We need to have a better understanding of the impact of this common drinking water contaminant on all aspects of pregnancy,” Aschengrau said in a press release.
PCE has also been tied to an increased risk for cancer. Children exposed to PCE as fetuses and toddlers are more likely to use drugs later in life. The toxin has been linked to mental illness, an increased risk of breast cancer and some birth defects. It has been tied to anxiety, depression, and impairments in cognition, memory and attention.
PCE is still present in much lower levels in Massachusetts’s water. The state continues to monitor contamination levels. Because replacing them was deemed too expensive, the pipes were flushed to reduce PCE to levels. The Environmental Protection Agency has lowered the maximum contaminant level for PCE from 40 parts per billion in 1980 to 5 ppb.
PCE contamination has also been found on military bases across the country. Studies of Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina, now a Superfund site, found a higher risk of terminal illness among workers on the base. The military was criticized for being slow to address the risk of PCE and other contaminants and for failing to notify people who might have been affected. Water systems in California and Pennsylvania and have also been found to be contaminated with PCE.