June 04, 2012
State funding for environmental research on possible contaminants in the Cape's drinking water is getting harder to come by.
It's a situation that advocates for breast cancer research say could delay the development of protective regulations, costing lives as well as treatment dollars.
After receiving no state funding for the past two years, the Silent Spring Institute in Newton asked legislators on Beacon Hill for $150,000 this spring to continue a study on carcinogens and endocrine disrupters in the Cape's drinking water. Lawmakers in both houses, however, turned down funding for the nonprofit organization, founded in 1994 to study the Cape's high rates of breast cancer.
But some fancy footwork by state Sen. President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, and Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, could salvage one-third of Silent Spring's request.
At the last minute, the legislators got a "technical amendment" to include $50,000 for Silent Spring in the Senate budget. "It's really important work," Wolf said.
Now Silent Spring leaders hope the proposed funding survives a joint conference committee review.
The reduced amount "is a good start," said Cheryl Osimo, co-founder of Silent Spring Institute and communications director of its sister organization, the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition.
"But we need to fill the gap to have an active research project on the Cape again," she said.
Hurt by budget crisis
The money is a far cry from the $1 million in funding Silent Spring got from the state a little more than a decade ago.
The institute used the funds for studies on breast cancer incidence rates and such factors as pesticide and land use in an attempt to look for possible environment links to breast cancer on the Cape.
It also conducted a household exposure case-control study showing that contaminants from building materials and consumer products end up in the air and dust of people's homes.
Many of these contaminants are classified as endocrine-disrupting compounds, which because of their ability to interfere with the body's hormone system makes them suspect in cases of breast cancer.
But Silent Spring lost its state funding when falling tax revenues contributed to the state budget crisis in 2003.
Since then, the organization, which has an annual budget of $1.6 million in private and federal funds, has focused its Cape work on studies into possible contaminants in drinking water.
Several of its studies, including one on private wells released in November, show that pharmaceutical products and artificial sweeteners as well as flame retardants, hormones, plasticizers and insect repellent are making their way into the Cape's private wells.
This is a concern to researchers, since many of these substances mimic estrogen, which causes breast cancer cells to grow in the lab.
Across the country, about 40,000 women die of breast cancer each year. Barnstable County has the state's highest breast cancer mortality rate, according to a report by the Massachusetts affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The Cape's annual death rate from breast cancer is 29.4 out of 100,000 here, compared with the state average of 21.4. Barnstable County's breast cancer incident rate also is higher than the state average, according to the Komen foundation.
"Breast cancer incidence has been elevated on Cape Cod ever since the Massachusetts cancer registry began in 1982," Silent Spring Institute Executive Director Julia Brody said.
In December, the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization that acts as the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, "issued a clear statement saying that science now documents plausible biological links between environmental chemicals and breast cancer risk," Brody said.
She said it was the first time a major medical organization had made such a claim.
But with the economic crisis affecting public research dollars available at both the federal and state levels, Silent Spring has been facing budgetary woes.
The federal government filled some of the state funding gap with four congressional appropriations, the last of which was $350,000 in September 2010.
But those appropriations ended with the federal ban on earmarks, although the organization continues to receive other federal grants.
The Massachusetts Environmental Trust helped out with the Cape drinking water studies until it dropped its funding in fiscal 2011, Osimo said.
Nearly a quarter of the organization's funding comes from private donations, Osimo said. She said it gets more than a third of its funding from nonprofit foundations and 42 percent from various federal grants. It just received $200,000 from the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, which Osimo said will help update the organization's epidemiology database and develop new biomarkers for exposure to contaminants.
Lack of funding 'appalling'
Karen Joy Miller of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition on Long Island, N.Y., the fundraising arm for one of the country's largest studies on environmental links to breast cancer, said the funding situation is "appalling."
She said her organization no longer receives funds from the county, state or federal governments.
Miller said Huntington and Silent Spring have been role models for involving the community in discussion about breast cancer and partnering with private donors to offset lost public funding.
Environmental research organizations can't expect the deep-pocket corporate support that floats pharmaceutical and other research, said Dr. John Erban of Tufts Medical Center Cancer Center, who is on Silent Spring's board.
"There is very little revenue to be gained in prevention. The financial incentive is lacking," Erban said.
But there is great cost savings to be had in preventing cancer, especially as the population ages, he said. Unfortunately, organizations "are not doing nearly as many studies as could be done, because of limitations on resources," Erban said.