A Scientific Debate
A possible link has been established between THMs and cancers of the bladder and colon. However, chemical and water-industry officials maintain that the scientific evidence linking THMs to miscarriage and birth defects is inconclusive. Still, many researchers in the field contend that at the very least there is cause for serious concern.
"The evidence we have today is enough to prompt us to look at the issue closely," says Diane Regas, deputy assistant administrator for water at the EPA. Robert Morris, M.D., Ph.D., an adjunct professor of environmental engineering at Washington State University, in Pullman, who has researched extensively on THMs and cancer, adds, "The best study to date has found a link between chlorination by-products and miscarriage, and the research on cancer suggests that this link is plausible. Cancer occurs when cells aren't reproducing properly. And errors in the reproduction of cells in the embryo usually lead to serious malformations or even a nonviable embryo. When that happens, the rate of miscarriage rises dramatically."
On the other hand, Michele Lynberg, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, says she's not convinced. "It's too early to make a direct association between chlorination by-products and a significant health risk to a pregnancy," she says. "We don't think that the evidence is compelling."
The debate over the health risk of THMs is likely to become more heated as the Chesapeake lawsuit proceeds; at press time, no trial date had been set. Residents of other communities who feel their water is responsible for a host of health problems, such as cancer, are eagerly awaiting the outcome. They're likely to have a long wait as the case winds its way through a justice system that often moves at a snail's pace. In the meantime, Joynes remains convinced of the merits of the case.
"To have high levels of a possible carcinogen in the water so closely related to miscarriages and to not tell pregnant women -- it's a sin," he says. "These women could have chosen to drink bottled water, buy a filter, or move out of Chesapeake. Even if we don't get a penny, we've already won because we've exposed this." Whatever the outcome, Spaven, Smith, and Wilson have reached their own conclusions based on their experiences. Spaven stopped drinking the water in December 1998; her daughter was born in November 1999. Smith gave up on Chesapeake water in 2000; her daughter was born in 2001. Wilson stopped drinking the water in 1999; she gave birth to healthy boys in 2000 and 2002. They all ask the same question: If the water wasn't the problem, then what else could it have been?
Copyright © 2003 Melba Newsome. Reprinted with permission from the July 2003 issue of Parents magazine.
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