Cape Cod, Massachusetts – It’s the windswept peninsula landscape that provides its 215,000 year-round residents majestic views of the sea, sand dunes, marshes, and cranberry bogs. The geographic features and award-winning golf courses attract tourists from around the world and is considered one of the top 20 places to travel in the United States (Best Places to Visit in the USA, 2015).

While this all seems so luxurious and relaxing, there’s something daunting about Cape Cod: It has the highest rate of breast cancer in the State of Massachusetts, with Barnstable County possessing the most cases.

Here are the statistics:

  • Cape Cod has the highest death rate from breast cancer. Let’s put this into perspective: That’s 153.8 cases per 100,000 in Cape Cod, compared to the rest of the state that averages at 132.3 per 100,000.
  • Women who live on Cape Cod for 25 to 29 years are at a 72% higher risk to develop breast cancer than women who have only lived there for a few years (McCormick, 2012).

“We all continue to be contaminated without our consent!” – Margo Simon Golden, president of the board of Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition.

In this article, I’ll explain:

  • Why breast cancer rates are so high in Cape Cod
  • What these chemicals are
  • How they cause cancer in the body, and
  • What is (or not) being done about this epidemic in Cape Cod.

Let’s start with the two major factors:

  • The natural landscape
  • Man-made contributions

The Natural Landscape: Barnstable County

  • 15 towns in Cape Cod, totaling 413 square miles of terrain including forests, beaches, marshes, and bogs.
  • Soil and water has propensity to be contaminated. Pollutants seep into adjacent layers of soil and water. Soil is made up of glacial outwash, till and other silt making it very permeable.
  • The air quality in Cape Cod is 50% worse than Boston (Air Quality, 2002). Cape Cod has a “unique microclimate with a dual sea breeze circulation.” Pollutants essentially never leave: They are swept in this revolving air current. It leaves high concentrations of contaminants from regional power plants and fossil fuels. It is worse in the summer months.

Man-Made Contributions:

Washpee, Sandwich and Falmouth as well as Eastern Cape Cod are the most contaminated (Aschengrau, Vieira, Webster, & Weinberg, 2002). The two major sources of contamination comes from the Massachusetts Military Reserves (MMR) & toxic chemical sprays.


  • Massachusetts Military Reserves & Ground Plumes:


Beginning in 1911, the MMR used chemicals for training purposes. They disposed of them via drains, “unlined” landfills, and drywells. In the 1970s, a major fuel spill occurred, spewing 700,000 gallons of jet fuel into the ground water.  When these chemicals leached into the water, it created a ground plume.


Ground plumes are areas which contain abundant amounts of potentially toxic contaminants which can diffuse into our drinking water.


As of 2010, there are 12 ground plumes. The largest one measures 2.5 miles.  Additionally, 78 additional contaminated areas have been discovered around the military base. It is noted that these ground plumes move 1 to 2 feet per day (Goddard, 1997)! Since 1989, there have been strong efforts to clean these up.


Every day, environmental agencies filter 18 million gallons of contaminated water (Martin, Spring 2008), and the county expects each plume to take at least 30 years to completely clean.


Plume contaminants include anything from fuel, missile compounds, flammable waste liquids, and many other carcinogenic elements (Ground Water Plume, April 2010).


  • Contaminated Cranberry Bogs & Golf courses:


Cape Cod is known for its cranberry bogs and tourist and residential destinations for golf-goers and landscape enthusiasts. Maintaining these means high usage of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.


  • These are dispersed through power sprays, airplanes, and sprinkler systems.


  • “Specifically, breast cancer risk was approximately 20 to 80 percent higher for women who lived in or near areas treated for tree pests in 1948-1995, near cranberry bogs in 1948 to the mid-1970s, and, near agricultural land since the mid-1970s” (Findings of the Cape Cod Breast, 2006).


  • Carcinogenic chemicals have been found above normal levels in the drinking water, like alkylphenol polyethoxylates (APEOs) and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) (Brody, Geno, Melly, Rudel, & Sun, Feb 1998).


  • Outside of the Barnstable County Airport, high levels of PFCs were found in the Hyannis Water System. A study has shown increased rates of breast cancer in this area (Tests Find New Contaminants, n.d.).


  • Indoor Factors:


In a home-study conducted by Silent Spring Institute, 66 different endocrine disrupting compounds were found in 11 out of 120 homes at very high levels:


  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Di (2-ethyl hexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
  • Tris (2,3-dibromopropyl)phosphate
  • PBDEs (flame retardants)(found in furniture and carpet).
  • Pesticides, like DDT and chlordane, which had been brought inside via air circulation and the water supply (Findings of the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study, 2006).



Scientists classify these chemicals as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs):


  • What Are Endocrine Disrupting Compounds?


EDCs mimic natural hormones, like estrogen and androgen, and can trick the brain into overproducing them. They attach themselves to cell receptor sites and “block the endogenous hormone from binding” (Endocrine Disruptors, Jan 2015).  This alters metabolization in organs, like the liver and kidneys, and also arrests the body’s communication system.


EDCs change the body’s natural physiology and DNA.


This results in inadequate gland and hormone response.


  • What is Estrogen?


Estrogen is a messenger hormone and has many functions in the body, but it mainly impacts sexual development and functioning of reproductive organs in the female body.  Estrogen is present in males, too.


When there’s overproduction or a high exposure to estrogen, it stimulates breast tissue and cell growth and starts tumorigenesis, which can turn into metastatic cancer.


Addressing the Bigger Picture:


  • Lack of Research Inhibits Solutions:


  • While all of these chemicals possess carcinogenic properties (most of them now banned because of their posed cancer risks), there have been inconclusive studies that show little to no association to breast cancer specifically to some of the chemicals, like pesticides, in drinking water (Aschengrau, Brody, Kennedy, McKelvey, Rudel, & Swartz, 2006).


  • This could possibly be due to the lack of research, as well as too many variables in the sample.


  • But, the facts DO exist:


  • It’s easy for these chemicals to leak into the water supply because of Cape Cod’s natural landscape (Cape Cod Breast Cancer and the Environment Atlas, n.d.).


  • Pesticide manufacturers cannot afford incentives to have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluate and register the chemicals for safety. (This is especially true for chemicals used in cranberry bogs.)
    • These pesticides are used against EPA regulations under a different set of standards through the State of Massachusetts (Pesticide Use in Cranberries, 2005).


  • Government agencies do not test for most of these chemicals found in water treatment facilities and only have to meet certain standards to be considered “safe.”
    • Water treatment facilities do not have to work synergistically with agencies like the EPA to follow specific guidelines. (People used to be freely dispose of toxic chemicals in the 1900s)


  • More women in their 40s are being diagnosed with breast cancer in Cape Cod, where 61 is the average age in the United States (Breast Cancer Statistics, April 2014)



What’s Being Done about the High Cancer Rates in Cape Cod?


  • In 1991, Cape Cod resident, Cheryl Osimo, was diagnosed at age 41. She’s a mother of two who has no family history of breast cancer and who led a healthy lifestyle. She was scared and angry, just like many other Cape Cod women who were diagnosed. Cheryl advocates for change in environmental policy and is now the coordinator of the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study (Lequire, 1998).


  • Other advocate groups have formed:


  • GreenCAPE (Cape Alliance for Pesticide Education) works to inform the residents and tourists of the chemically saturated sources and areas. They push to reduce or eliminate the use of toxic chemicals through proposing more natural and sustainable methods (NSTAR Spraying Herbicides, 2014).


  • The Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition holds annual campaigns and walks for mammogram testing. Their mission statement is “dedicated to preventing environmental causes of breast cancer through community education, research advocacy, and changes to public policy.” They claim that Massachusetts is the first state where breast cancer is an epidemic.


  • Healthcare professionals have also been encouraging women to start getting mammograms earlier than the normal guidelines.


Environmental and political factors are responsible for the detriment of Cape Cod’s population. If humans are capable of destroying the health of a community, they have the power to fix it.



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