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Looking for possible link to water troubles, Housatonic residents ask neighbors about health issues

A view from Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Studio Sarah Lou
Agency: Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/sackerman519
A view from Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Some residents of the Housatonic village in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, are questioning whether something in the water could be causing cancer. And they are teaming up to investigate it.

Heather Bellow, a reporter for the The Berkshire Eagle, has been covering this story.

Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle: There are about 850 households and businesses on the Housatonic Water Works Company system. All of those are in Housatonic, except for some that are in Great Barrington but close to Housatonic, and then there are the areas of West Stockbridge that are close to Housatonic. So it's not just Housatonic. And I'm not sure how many residents reside in that particular area that is served by the water company.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: There have been some cases of cancer which apparently has caused some concern for people in that area?

Apparently so. This is anecdotal, and I think that's what they're trying to find out, and whether they can actually trace that to contaminants in the water system. In this case, it’s the haloacetic acid that is worrying them. This is a chlorine byproduct that's used as a disinfectant for the water system that comes out of Long Pond. And whether they can trace that to the water is yet to be seen.

There are other potential contaminants around. There's the Housatonic River, which has had PCB contamination for years, and I'm sure there are other sources of contamination in the area as well.

I'm seeing in a flier that residents of Housatonic and West Stockbridge have noticed a kind of brown water. What do the people who have written this flier point to?

Well, this has been an ongoing safety concern, but really the regulators say that the water is safe to drink, even though it has ranged in different shades from yellow to brown, on occasion, when there's turbulence in the system. So if they flush a hydrant, for instance, it'll roil up the system and people will get just colored water of varying shades coming out of their taps.

And this has just been frightening for people for a long time. Even though the water company tests the water, and the state Department of Environmental Protection says it's OK to drink, it still bothers everybody. And everyone is suspicious that maybe there's something wrong with it and that they shouldn't trust it.

And so, when this report came out, just this last January and because they average out the levels over the year, it sort of raised the levels. However, the company says that this is an anomaly. Historically, the levels have been below the 60 parts per billion threshold, which is the sort of danger threshold. And public health officials say that you have to drink water with elevated levels of haloacetic acid for years before you would potentially have any health damage from it. But other researchers say that the effect of haloecetic acid on humans is understudied. So it's a question in everyone's mind.

And two residents have decided to take it upon themselves to figure out what's going on. Is there any assurance of secure, anonymous trading of information?

These two residents are organizing this. I think there's a slightly larger group called Residents for Clean Water. And they've been working, I believe, on the discoloration problem. They've put out a petition to the state to try to fix the problem. They're working to apply pressure to the town to take over the water company, which is privately owned. That's been ongoing.

And so this latest initiative of theirs is to basically tell residents what the problem is, and then they're going to also include in these postal drops, a survey. They'll be asking people what kind of cancer or illness they've had and whether the household drinks the water, or do they buy bottled water? Just various questions to try to figure it out.

And one person I spoke to who's organizing this said that they are going to have strict confidence with this data. So they say they're going to do this in a very professional way, and I believe they're hiring somebody to do it.

Are you aware of other campaigns like this in the area?

Not specifically related to Housatonic water. I do know that in Pittsfield, maybe two decades ago, maybe longer, residents there plotted out locations where people with cancer lived and worked, connecting that with the PCB pollution from the former General Electric plant there. So that's the only other instance of trying to determine whether there is some environmental threat that is causing cancer in the area.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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