The environment and its link to cancer rates in Maine

Did you know?

Maine has cancer rates that are higher than the national average. Two types, in particular, stand out. Bladder and lung cancer.

Dr. Richard Clapp has spent much of his 40-year career as an epidemiologist researching the role that the environment and people’s occupations play in causing certain cancers, including lung and bladder cancer.

Dr. Clapp was the founding Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry. Now retired from the Boston University School of Public Health he is an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell. I interviewed him recently to get a better understanding of Maine’s higher than average cancer stats.

Bladder cancer causes

The incidence of bladder cancer in Maine and New England has been about 20 percent higher than the rest of the country for more than 50 years. One of the primary causes said Dr. Clapp, is arsenic in drinking water that comes from private wells.

A National Cancer Institute study looked at northern New England and one of the findings was that people who had high levels of arsenic in their drinking water had higher rates of bladder cancer.

Richard Clapp, D. Sc, MPH

A fair amount of people in Maine happen to get their drinking water from private wells. How do they become contaminated with arsenic? According to the NCI study:

There are two possible sources of arsenic in the well water in northern New England. Arsenic can occur naturally, releasing from rock deep in the earth, and arsenic-based pesticides that were used extensively on crops such as blueberries, apples, and potatoes in the 1920s through the 1950s.

NCI Press Release, 2016

If you’re concerned about arsenic in your well water, get it tested, especially if you have a dug well. We get our drinking water from a well and had it tested through the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Lab several years ago. It was a pretty straightforward process and thankfully, we had no arsenic.

Dr. Clapp told me that he used a private lab to get the water tested at his family’s camp in Maine.

We have a well right on the lake that goes down 200 feet. It has a high level of arsenic in it, so I put in a filter underneath our kitchen sink.

In addition to arsenic, exposure to chemicals produced by two industries that played an important role in Maine’s history may also be linked to bladder cancer, especially in older people.

There were a number of occupational exposures. One that might have been relevant was working with dyes in the textile industry. I grew up in Lewiston and I can testify that textiles have been gone from Maine for quite a while, but some of the older people may have been exposed to dyes working in the textile plants.

The other one is working with leather in manufacturing shoes. A lot of those sites have also moved out of Maine, but again, older folks might have worked with the chemicals that were used in the shoemaking industry.

Two other big causes of bladder cancer are exposure to diesel fuels and tobacco smoke.

Dr. Clapp

Lung cancer

Tobacco smoke is also linked to lung cancer, but may not be the reason Maine has higher than average lung cancer rates. Dr. Clapp points a finger at radon.

I actually don’t think Maine’s smoking rates are that much higher than the rest of the country to explain why the lung cancer rates are higher. But radon is high, especially in the areas where there is granite in the soil, which is most of the state.

Radon comes up through the granite into your basement and your house. I think that’s probably the second leading cause of lung cancer in Maine.

Dr. Clapp

The first thing you’ll want to find out about radon is if there’s any gas present in your home. The American Cancer Society offers some advice on how to test for the substance and what to do if you get a positive reading.

Where to learn more

The environment you live and work in can either enhance your health or put you at risk of certain diseases, such as cancer. Learn the facts about two cancers that have been linked to environmental factors in Maine.

Dr. Clapp will present additional information about reducing exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment at the Dempsey Center in April and May. Here are the details:

Reducing Your Environmental Risk for Cancer — What You Can Do
Dempsey Center -Lewiston
29 Lowell St., 5th floor
Lewiston, ME
April 16, 2019
6:00 – 7:30

Reducing Your Environmental Risk for Cancer — What You Can Do
Dempsey Center-South Portland
778 Main St.
South Portland, ME
May 23, 2019
6:00 – 7:30

Visit the Dempsey Center website to learn more about the services and programs it offers.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.