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In January 1992, Ann Aschengrau stood in front of a packed auditorium in Falmouth, Mass. Hundreds of people had gathered to hear her explain why the cancer rates on Cape Cod were so high. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, breast cancer in Barnstable was 41 percent higher than the state average, even after accounting for the town’s older population. Colorectal cancer was 49 percent higher in Bourne, lung cancer was 79 percent higher in Falmouth. The atmosphere was tense; the crowd wanted answers.
There were a few possible culprits: smoke from a coal-fired electric plant, leaking landfills, pesticides sprayed on cranberry bogs, the sprawling Massachusetts Military Reservation, and water pipes contaminated with a neurotoxin called PCE. Community groups had demanded that the commonwealth launch an investigation, and the task fell to Aschengrau, a BU School of Public Health professor of epidemiology, and her colleague David Ozonoff, an SPH professor of environmental health.
The study, begun in 1988, became hugely politicized, with activists, cancer survivors, and the military pointing fingers, laying blame, demanding answers. By the evening of her presentation, Aschengrau feared an ugly confrontation. “I was terrified of a scene with the activists, between the activists and the military people, all on TV and radio,” she recalls.
The study results, presented that night in Falmouth, pleased no one.