Using Residential History and Groundwater Modeling to Examine Drinking Water Exposure and Breast Cancer

Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010 Jun;118(6):749-55. Epub 2010 Feb 17.

Gallagher LG, Webster TF, Aschengrau A, Vieira VM.

“BACKGROUND: Spatial analyses of case-control data have suggested a possible link between breast cancer and groundwater plumes in upper Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

“OBJECTIVE: We integrated residential histories, public water distribution systems, and groundwater modeling within geographic information systems (GIS) to examine the association between exposure to drinking water that has been contaminated by wastewater effluent and breast cancer.

“METHODS: Exposure was assessed from 1947 to 1993 for 638 breast cancer cases who were diagnosed from 1983 to 1993 and 842 controls; we took into account residential mobility and drinking water source. To estimate the historical impact of effluent on drinking water wells, we modified a modular three-dimensional finite-difference groundwater model (MODFLOW) from the U.S. Geological Survey. The analyses included latency and exposure duration.

“RESULTS: Wastewater effluent impacted the drinking water wells of study participants as early as 1966. For > 0-5 years of exposure (versus no exposure), associations were generally null. Adjusted odds ratios (AORs) for > 10 years of exposure were slightly increased, assuming latency periods of 0 or 10 years [AOR = 1.3; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.9-1.9 and AOR = 1.6; 95% CI, 0.8-3.2, respectively]. Statistically significant associations were estimated for ever-exposed versus never-exposed women when a 20-year latency period was assumed (AOR = 1.9; 95% CI, 1.0-3.4). A sensitivity analysis that classified exposures assuming lower well-pumping rates showed similar results.

“CONCLUSION: We investigated the hypothesis generated by earlier spatial analyses that exposure to drinking water contaminated by wastewater effluent may be associated with breast cancer. Using a detailed exposure assessment, we found an association with breast cancer that increased with longer latency and greater exposure duration.”