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Does Housatonic have a cancer cluster? Residents are on a mission to gather evidence

Reed Anderson holding jar of dirty tap water (copy)

Reed Anderson, a customer of Housatonic Water Works Co., holds a sample of his water, taken a month after levels of a compound linked to cancer began to spike in water tests. The community did not learn of it until January. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — A group of residents is trying to find out if there is a cancer cluster in Housatonic, given reports that drinking water over the last year showed elevated levels of a hazardous compound.

Residents for Clean Water plan to drop questionnaires in the post office boxes and mailboxes of Housatonic and West Stockbridge households. The fliers explain the health concern and ask residents to complete a survey form that asks whether members of a household have had cancer or other “environmental illnesses.”

The group wants to also reach households with Great Barrington addresses that are on Housatonic Water Works Co.’s system, but sit on the outskirts of the village.

The fliers are in response to some test results over the last year that show haloacetic acid, a chlorine byproduct also known as HAA5, having spiked in drinking water to levels above what regulators say is safe. HAA5 levels have dropped since August, according to the company. The waterworks also says the elevated levels are an anomaly; historically they have stayed well below the danger line.

The compound is linked to cancer in animal studies. While health officials say it takes years of ingesting elevated levels of HAA5 to cause cancer, researchers say the manner of the compound’s effect on humans has not been thoroughly studied.

A flier and survey form designed by Residents for Clean Water, to determine whether Housatonic has a cancer cluster. If so, is it caused by the water system?

The notice from the waterworks about HAA5 levels said that vulnerable people should consult with their doctors before continuing to drink the water.

Denise Forbes, a group member, said the project to gather health reports was sparked after 11 Housatonic residents attending a meeting about the water said they had experienced cancer — out of 12 residents present.

“We are hearing that there are a lot of [Housatonic] people with cancer that we had no idea about,” Forbes said.

Whether past illnesses can be linked to problems with the waterworks’ system, or other local contamination, remains to be seen.

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“The information provided will be maintained as confidential and used by professionals seeking to map incidents of cancer and disease by HWW water users,” the flier says. “If the results of the attached survey and data analysis warrant it, your information will be combined with other survey respondents’ information to help identify what steps should be taken to ensure the safety of HWW water.”

Housatonic Water Works Co. haloacetic acids

Under orders from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the water company began reducing levels of chlorine, which is used to disinfect the water. The DEP also required that the company put a plan in place to fix the problem and continues to monitor the situation. The company says record rains last July are the likely culprit, since the first spike was in August.

Waterworks co-owner and Treasurer James Mercer said he is unaware of the group’s flier, and declined to comment about it.

The reports on HAA5 came on top of customer frustration with bouts of discolored water containing visible particles. While unappealing and troublesome, the water is safe to drink, regulators say.

Then came the HAA5 report. Residents learned of it in January. The town is working on possible remedies for residents, as well as exploring a takeover of the private company.

Forbes and Sharon Gregory have continued to apply pressure to the company and the town. Gregory, a former town official, is not a waterworks customer; Forbes is a customer.

Gregory said past residents of a state-subsidized housing complex in Housatonic, Flag Rock Village, should also participate in the survey, since they have not been notified about the HAA5 levels. The town’s Housing Authority board — of which Mercer previously was the chair — voted against tracking them down to do so. Mercer and two other members have since resigned, citing other issues.

Springfield and Ludlow also are struggling with an HAA5 problem attributed to heavy rainfall. Like Housatonic’s, that water system is in need of major upgrades.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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