The Boston Globe - February 15, 2021

Activists push for cancer awareness - Say people must consider the unknown effects of chemicals used every day by Erica Noonan

Last week's meeting on environmental toxins, cosponsored by the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project, was much more than a theoretical discussion about a deadly disease.

Wellesley has higher-than-average rates of several kinds of cancer, and local prevention activists are looking in their backyards and scrutinizing the pesticides and chemicals they believe could be to blame.

Organizer Viola Morse said the forum, which attracted about 50 people, was not planned to be as large as the project's symposium that attracted hundreds last year. Rather, it was designed to keep the matter in the news and in the minds of Wellesley residents.

''This was one piece of the issue,'' she said. ''One of the ways we're trying to break through [to educate people] is to look at everyday issues''

Morse, one of the organizers of the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project, was galvanized to action when she developed colon cancer four years ago at age 50. Since she had none of the lifestyle attributes normally connected to the illness, her attention turned to environmental factors.

The issue grabbed headlines in 1998 when the state Department of Public Health released statistics showing significantly higher rates of prostate and bone marrow cancer for men, and breast cancer for women, in Wellesley.

Leukemia rates among both genders in town were also higher than expected. The state also found that lung cancer among men and stomach cancer among women in Wellesley occurred significantly less often than the state averages.

The Department of Public Health is now in the midst of a more intense Phase Two study, whose results are expected in the fall, Morse said.

Although the causes of cancer in Wellesley and elsewhere are subject to fierce debate, Morse said, the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project is focusing on educating the town about the potential dangers of pesticides and some dry-cleaning chemicals, including the solvent perchloroethylene, commonly known as ''perc.''

The group surveyed nine local dry cleaners about the chemicals they used and what, if any, alternatives were offered to consumers. Only three responded, Morse said, one in an angry, none-of-your-business letter.

''One of the ways we're trying to break through is to look at everyday issues,'' she said. ''The average person getting dry cleaning doesn't think about it. ... We use all this stuff, it's `better living through chemistry,' but we are being taken advantage of as much as we're taking advantage.''

Morse said the group would push forward with educational efforts, including a planned viewing of a Bill Moyers special on environmental toxins scheduled for late March.

''Out main goal is not to frighten people so much they don't want to hear it, but encourage people to be aware that they have choices,'' she said.

Sarah Little, pesticide awareness coordinator for the Wellesley Board of Health, a cosponsor of last week's forum, has also been involved with the cancer prevention effort. The board recently received a $7,000 grant from the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to develop a townwide pesticide-reduction plan.

Before taking the town post, Little had been struck by the amount of pesticides used in her Wellesley Farms neighborhood.

''It's really bothered me that I couldn't walk around on the sidewalks without seeing the stuff everywhere and on my kids' shoes. Sometimes it seemed like a health hazard to walk the kids to school.''

The department plans to publish an educational brochure about the alleged dangers of pesticides, used by an estimated 75 percent of Wellesley households.

''It's a little bit hard to get people to reduce pesticide use,'' she said. ''I had one boy ask me once, `How will we get our grass green without pesticides?'''

The Board of Health is also working with the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Barre on a program of pesticide-free lawn-care standards. The town cannot regulate the use of pesticides, so the education push seems like the best way to reduce use among townspeople, Little said.

The department also will work to raise awareness about laws preventing the use of some chemicals by homeowners living within half a mile of some town wells. Those rules are little known and largely unenforced, she said.

Both women agreed that permanent change must start at the grass-roots level.

''It's going to happen when consumers stop using X or stop buying Y because they learn they have alternatives,'' Morse said. ''We're not interested in creating lawsuits, or pointing fingers at the bad guys. We're interested in making a change and cooperating with other communities.''

The Wellesley cancer prevention activists are closely allied with similar groups in Newton, Needham, and other communities, Morse said.

Some of those activists attended last week's forum to discuss educational projects for their own residents.

''Cancer doesn't stop at the borders,'' Morse said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at