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#123 - Study Reveals Pattern Of Illness From Drinking Polluted Water, 03-Apr-1989

Twenty-five people exposed to contaminated drinking water in Woburn,
Massachusetts, have developed a pattern of disease involving skin
disorders, damage to the central nervous system, and heart problems,
when compared to a control group of forty individuals matched for age,
sex, and social habits. In Woburn a public water supply was
contaminated with trichloroethylene (267 parts per billion, or ppb),
tetrachloroethylene (21 ppb) and lesser amounts of other industrial
solvents such as 1,1,1-trichloroethane and chloroform. People drank the
contaminated water for more than a decade before the pollution was

The problem first came to light as a cluster of leukemia cases.
Leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming cells, and it is almost always
fatal. Between 1969 and 1972, 12 cases of leukemia occurred in Woburn,
where only 5 cases would have been expected to occur naturally; Woburn
has a total population of 37,000. The incidence of childhood leukemia
in the entire city was 2.5 times the national average, but in East
Woburn--the part of town principally served by the contaminated water
wells--the incidence of leukemia in male children was 12.5 times what
would have been expected by random chance.

The 25 individuals in the present study were not themselves victims of
leukemia, but were members of eight families in which at least one
member had leukemia. Examination and evaluation of the 25 individuals
occurred 5 to 6 years after the polluted water wells had been closed.
The study looked principally for damage to the immune system of the 25
people because an earlier study had reported that children of East
Woburn were suffering a higher rate of pulmonary (lung-related) and
urinary infections than children in West Woburn, where the water
pollution was not so severe.

None of the 25 individuals had a history of unusual exposure to organic
solvents, benzene, halogenated hydrocarbons, heavy metals, herbicides,
or pesticides.

Medical examination of the 25 individuals "revealed a clinical syndrome
including gastroenteropathy, cardiomyopathy and dermatological and
immunological abnormalities."

In plain English, the study revealed that 13 (52%) of the people had
stomach problems including chronic nausea and recurrent diarrhea and
constipation (a condition known as the "irritable bowel syndrome").
These symptoms improved markedly after people stopped drinking the
contaminated well water but were still present more than five years
later in all affected subjects.

In thirteen of the subjects (52%), recurrent maculopapular rashes
occurred within a year of the beginning of exposure. (Maculopapular
rashes are a mixture of discolored skin and bumpy skin.) These occurred
at least twice per year for 2 to 4 weeks. The rashes were poorly
responsive to steroid therapy, were not associated with fever, and
occurred most often on the extremities and face. No obvious cause could
be found. In most cases, these rashes cleared up after one to two years
of exposure, but in 4 cases, they continued after cessation of

Twenty-two of the subjects (88%) had frequent or chronic sinusitis
[inflammation of the sinuses] or rhinitis [inflammation of the mucous
membrane of the nose], and this was not related to the season of the
year. (Chronic sinusitis was defined as two episodes per year for five
years, responsive to antibiotics; chronic rhinitis was defined as
appropriate symptoms for more than three months per year for five years
with no seasonal component.)

Fourteen subjects (56%) complained of heart problems, including rapid
heart rate while at rest, and palpitations or near syncope [heart
spasms]. Echocardiograms revealed eight subjects with serious
ventricular disrhythmias [irregular rhythms of the pumping action of
the heart].

Immunological damage was measured three different ways. The findings
revealed a "persistent lymphocytosis" [an excess of white blood cells]
and an elevation in the absolute number of T cells. In addition, the
ratio of helper cells to suppressor cells changed in the subject
population, but not in the control population, as time passed after
they stopped drinking polluted water.

Other studies of the effects of trichloroethylene (TCE) on humans have
documented all of the symptoms reported among the 25 subjects. However,
the exposure levels in the present study were lower than exposures
reported in previous studies. The authors of the present study (two
British cancer specialists, a California dermatologist and a Boston
public health specialist, all of them medical doctors) concluded that
"Since neurological [nerve], cardiological [heart] and dermatological
[skin] abnormalities have been previously seen in humans exposed to
TCE, the Woburn population which has all these abnormalities, probably
represents a true syndrome of toxic exposure."

This is an important study because it reveals a group of symptoms
besides cancer that can afflict people who are exposed to water
contaminated with industrial solvents. Too often, health studies focus
entirely on cancer. As important as it is, cancer is not the only
symptom of drinking polluted water, and these physicians have made a
significant contribution to the medical study of chemical victims.

Get: V.S. Byers, "Association between clinical symptoms and lymphocyte
abnormalities in a population with chronic domestic exposure to
industrial solventcontaminated domestic water supply and a high
incidence of leukaemia." CANCER IMMUNOLOGY AND IMMUNOTHERAPY, Vol. 27
(1988), pgs. 77-81. For a free reprint, write to: V.S. Byers, Cancer
Research Campaign Laboratories, University of Nottingham, University
Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, England. We received a copy from the
excellent service, ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH MONTHLY provided by CCHW, the
Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, P.O. Box 926, Arlington,
VA 22216; phone (703) 276-7070; a year's subscription to the Monthly
costs $15 for grass roots activists and $25 for professionals. Hats off
to Linda King, CCHW's first field organizer, who started the project
that became the MONTHLY; Linda has now left CCHW and she'll be missed
by the hundreds of groups and individuals she has helped.

--Peter Montague



The workplace is becoming more hazardous, according to the federal
Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bureau says
190,000 workers suffered new illnesses for the first time during 1987,
an increase of 28% over the 136,900 new cases of job-related illness
reported in 1986. Most of these illnesses involve noise-related hearing
loss, skin diseases [presumably related to chemical exposures], and
repetitive motion ailments. A total of 3,400 workers were killed on the
job during 1987, and nearly six million (5,843,100) were injured on the
job; half the injuries were so severe that employees lost a full day or
more of work; the total time lost to injuries was 48.8 million worker-
days. This means that 83 out of every thousand workers were injured on
the job during 1987, a 5% increase compared to 1986 when 79 out of
every 1000 workers were injured. --NEW YORK TIMES 11/16/88 (881116),
pg. A14.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: occupational safety and health; labor; workplace
hazards; bureau of labor statistics; health effects; drinking water;
studies; cancer; clusters; childhood cancer; health effects; drinking
water; public health; woburn, ma; water pollution; trichloroethylene;
tetrachloroethylene; chloroform; 1,1,1-trichloroethane; leukemia;
stomach problems; skin rashes; sinusitis; rhinitis; heart problems;
immune system damage; studies;