You go looking for trouble, you find it. That's true enough, I guess. Last week, noodling around with some writing I did way back when on breastfeeding, I was startled to discover, or rediscover, some distressing reports about environmental toxins and breast milk. In Europe, where breastfeeding is widespread, and maternity leaves are more accommodating of breastfeeding mothers, testing of breastmilk for toxicity is, evidently, commonplace. Not so here, and the toxin load in American women's breast milk reflects this lack of monitoring. I've got more to say about this problem, but not now. As a result of this reading, I got interested in toxin loads and rates of cancer incidence, and this brought me to SEERwhich has statistics on incidence rates of different kinds of cancer around the US.

Can we take, as writ, that some kinds of cancer -- cancers of filtration organs, like the kidney and liver, and fatty tissue, like the brain and breast -- are directly related to toxin exposure? We know toxins accumulate in fatty tissue, like the breast and the brain, and in the filter organs, like the liver, the lungs, and the kidneys. We also know that childhood cancers are becoming more common, and that children -- due to their size -- are uniquely vulnerable to toxin exposures. They are, perhaps, sentinels. And so I notice, upon looking into SEER's database, that the incidence of bladder cancer in Rhode Island (29-30 cases per 100,000) is significantly higher than the national average (21 cases per 100,000).

Rates of bladder cancer are important because the bladder, as a kind of holding tank for ingested fluid, is continually exposed to the environment. If it's out there, it's in here, too. The chlorine in drinking water -- that's a carcinogen. By itself, it poses enough of a problem. But it can also interact with other organic contaminants already present in the water, producing organochlorines including known carcinogens like trihalomethanes (e.g., chloroform).

So the watershed feeding the Scituate Reservoir, which supplies most of Providence's tap water, better be pretty pure. But I don't think it is. First of all, roads run all through it. Those roads are reasonably well-traveled and they are liberally de-iced in the winter. The sodium and chloride run into the water. I don't know how this material reacts when undergoes routine chlorination, but it would be good to know.

Moreover, the reservoir's drainage basin includes parts of Cranston and Johnston, towns where there's a lot of industry, and a lot of toxic chemicals. Some of them have been reported. It's not hard to find these places on a map; some are close to bodies of water that (though I'm no expert on the state's hydrography) seem to be part of the reservoir's drainage basin. I don't know how many of these chemicals leach into the water system, and I don't know which, if any of them, turn into organochlorines when the water is chlorinated. I know the water from the reservoir is aerated, which would in theory reduce the amount of toxins in the water by allowing them to vaporize -- but only if the aeration happens after chlorination, not before. (Plus, aeration sends these compounds back into the atmosphere where we can inhale them instead of drinking them.)

I know I'm looking for trouble. And I know that I used to live not too far from the Gowanus Canal, which might as well have glowed, it was so polluted. That didn't bother me, but the reservoir does. The cancer rates do. Hmph.