Noelle Swan

Contaminated Drinking Water Linked to Mental Illness

In Healthcare on January 23, 2012 at 12:40 pm

This article was first published on New England Post on January 23, 2012.

Move over family history and traumatic experience, here comes another piece in the mental illness puzzle.

A recent Boston University study suggests that exposure to a common drinking water contaminant in the womb and during early childhood could lead to heightened risk for bipolar and post traumatic stress disorders.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Mass. public works and water departments lay over 600 miles of pipe lined with vinyl that had been applied with tetrachloroetylene (PCE), a common dry cleaning solvent. At the time, it was assumed that the PCE would evaporate during a 48-hour drying period. They thought wrong.

Over a decade after water began coursing through the pipes, it became clear that PCE remained in the liner and subsequently leached into the water. In 1992, the EPA listed PCE as a drinking water contaminant and set a maximum contaminant level of 5 parts per billion in 1992. Today towns monitor for PCE and are required by law to notify residents should levels spike above EPA limits.

The 1970s residents of Massachusetts received no such warning. Bottled water and home filters had not gained popularity yet. Everyone, including pregnant women and young children drank directly from the tap

Boston University epidemiology professor Ann Ashengrau has studied the health effects of PCE in drinking water for over 20 years exploring cancer risks, reproductive affects and most recently, neurotoxic effects. Her latest findings appearing in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health addressed anecdotal evidence suggesting that PCE exposure might be connected to prevalence of mental illness.

Aschengrau’s team asked participants if a doctor had ever told them that they had bipolar disorder, depression, schitzophrenia, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All 1,500 study participants were born between 1969 and 1983 in either Barnstable, Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, Sandwich, Chatham, or Provincetown—towns now known to have had at least one mile of contaminated pipe sourcing drinking water. Each of these participants was likely exposed during prime development, both in utero and in early childhood.


Aschengrau explained her results in an interview. While exposure carried no additional risk for depression, the results indicated a doubled risk for bipolar disorder and a 1.5 fold increased risk for PTSD. The incidence of PTSD sheds as much light on PTSD as it does PCE exposure. “This is really entering relatively uncharted territory. I don’t think that the mechanism for this are clearly understood,” Aschengrau said. “For PTSD you still have to have that trauma for the disorder. But maybe this makes you more susceptible to it.”

The implications of this study go beyond the shores of Cape Cod. “Even though this study focuses on an historical exposure, there still are people that are being exposed to PCE in other ways,” Aschengrau said. In New York City, airborne PCE was found in five apartment buildings attached to dry cleaners in a study conducted by the New York State Health Department in 2005. In Ravenswood, West Virginia, PCE has migrated into the ground water, prompting the EPA to declare the site a superfund. It can evaporate off dry cleaned clothes and is used in many consumer products, including some spot removers, brake cleaners, and water repellents.

While this study adds to the growing body of information about the health effects of PCE, Aschengrau says that more needs to be done to corroborate the findings and hopes that others will conduct similar studies in different places and settings.

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