In the last three weeks, every household in the Stronghold neighborhood received a flier at their homes with some startling allegations: The rate of pancreatic cancer in the area is suspiciously high, and some residents suspect that it could be tied to their water supply.
Laura Jackson, who has lived in the seven-square-block radius neighborhood that lies east of North Capitol Street and south of Michigan Avenue NE for more than two decades, says in the past 18 months, four Stronghold residents have died from pancreatic cancer. As she and other residents started handing out fliers and talking to neighbors about this, she says they discovered two more people in the area with pancreas-related illnesses.
Jackson and some of her neighbors started researching and learned that the National Cancer Institute estimates that an average of 80 people died per year between 2006 and 2010 from pancreatic cancer in all of D.C. According to 2010 census data, 457 resident live in Stronghold. If 80 out of the approximately 601,000 residents counted in D.C. in the 2010 census die from the cancer each year, the neighborhood should only have one death every 16 years or so. (That is assuming, of course, that each resident and each demographic has an equal chance of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which may not be true.) The people who died in Stronghold ranged in age from their 50s to 80s, according to Jackson.
Those stats made her wonder if the cancers were just a coincidence, or if there was some other explanation. And her fliers put the blame on the neighborhood’s drinking water because, after some research, she discovered that pancreatic cancer could be linked to arsenic contamination in drinking water.
“Studies have shown that exposure to arsenic-contaminated drinking water wells may be associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer!!!” one of the fliers read. “Neighbors have complained about cloudy and murky water. The water company flushed water recently because of these reports.”
Those claims are true, but it’s not clear that they necessarily have anything to do with each other. A 2013 BMC Cancer medical journal study examining arsenic-contaminated drinking water wells in Florida did find that exposure to arsenic-contaminated drinking water could be associated with higher rates of pancreatic cancer. (Though this particular study looked at water coming from wells; Stronghold residents don’t get their water from wells.) But Greg Kail, a spokesman for the American Water Works Association, says arsenic contamination in water cannot be detected through sight, taste, or smell—which means cloudy and murky water isn’t necessarily a sign of arsenic.
DC Water spokesman John Lisle confirms that within the last year, the agency has received reports of brown water in Stronghold, specifically on Evarts and Franklin Streets NE. Lisle says the pipes there are around 100 years old (the median pipe age in D.C. is 79 years), and the department flushed the pipes several times this year. It then tested the water coming from the area fire hydrants and found no abnormalities. DC Water says brown water is likely caused by excess iron in the water, which is not a health risk and is often the result of aging pipes made of iron.
Lisle says DC Water takes questions about health seriously, but at this point, there’s no reason to believe that these cancer cases are in any way connected to the water supply.
“If what they are saying is true about the number of cancer cases, that could certainly be a public safety issue,” he says. “But I’m not sure why the residents have jumped to the conclusion that it’s the water.”
Stronghold gets its water from the same place as the rest of the District: the Potomac River. The water then goes through treatment at the Washington Aqueduct before it’s distributed throughout the city. Lisle says the arsenic levels of the water tested at the aqueduct are well below federal limits. Because of different pipes, the water that residents get throughout the city could vary. But the department, he says, also does more than 5,000 tests a year at distribution centers and has come across no arsenic problems.
DC Water has contacted the Department of Health about Stronghold’s concerns, and the agencies are in the preliminary stages of figuring out what additional water tests should be conducted.
“We take this very seriously, but at this point there is no evidence that the culprit is the water,” Lisle says.
A resident also called the Environmental Protection Agency, and spokesman Roy Seneca says the agency has been in contact with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and someone will be responding to neighbors soon.
Jackson sent out a press release from residents last week about these water concerns, saying they wanted a “Health Impact Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment Study” to be conducted “immediately.” She tells City Desk that if it isn’t the water causing these illnesses, she wants that possibility eliminated so residents can look into other environmental factors.
“We don’t know what it’s coming from…We definitely want water testing,” says Jackson, who adds that the city agencies have been helpful so far. “These are wonderful people that have been just great neighbors.”
Residents also contacted Ward 5 D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, a longtime Stronghold resident who says he personally knows two of the residents who recently died from pancreatic cancer. While he says he’s contacting the necessary agencies and working to ensure that his constituents’ concerns are addressed, he’s confident that DC Water has effectively and routinely tested the water for chemicals. It is, after all, the same water he has at his own house.
“Anytime you hear claims like the ones from the residents in Stronghold, I think we should take them seriously,” McDuffie says. “The chief priority is to get the community answers.”
DC Water’s Lisle says that if anyone is concerned, they can call customer service at (202) 354-3600 and ask to have their drinking water tested for free.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery