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The poisoning of Beverly Hills High

Q&A with author Joy Horowitz

by Amy Klein

January 24, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Joy Horowitz

Joy Horowitz

Joy Horowitz's "Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School" (Viking) is a dense 350-page book detailing a four-year fight between 1,000 litigants who claimed oil wells at the school caused diseases, such as cancer, and defendants -- including the oil companies, the city of Beverly Hills and school officials -- who said there had been no harmful effects from the (profitable) derricks.

Could it be true that leakage from the derricks and power plant caused incidences of cancer up to three times more than normal, as some experts claim? Or were people like Erin Brockovich, the celebrity environmental paralegal who took on the case, "ambulance chasers" and "fear-mongerers" relying on junk science, as defendants like Beverly Hills city officials and school administrators said?

As the case is being appealed -- with a partial settlement offer of $10 million from one oil company -- Horowitz, who will receive the Environmental Hero of 2008 award from the Environmental Relief Center on Jan. 31, believes the wells continue to endanger. The author of "Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter's Story," and the recipient, with her siblings, of the settlement of a case against tobacco companies fought on behalf of her late father, Horowitz spoke to The Jewish Journal about the complicated nuances of the lawsuit, why she thinks her message in "Parts Per Million" has been silenced, how the Jewish community sits at the center of the case and to what lengths people will go to protect their lifestyle.

Jewish Journal: How did you become involved in this story?
Joy Horowitz: I graduated in 1971 and went to my 30th reunion -- it was a year late, in the summer of 2002. A lot of my classmates, whom I was looking forward to seeing, had died. They'd had cancer -- some of them had multiple cancers. When you're a person in your 40s, that's too young. Then the following February of 2003, that's when Erin Brockovich descended on Beverly Hills and started making these allegations between cancer and young graduates. I was very skeptical, but the more I looked into it, the more I found that what was being said publicly was not the reality of what was going on.

Parts Per MillionJJ: What was going on?
JH: You've got these two industrial sites [the oil derricks and the Sempra power plant], operating at a high school in Beverly Hills.
Over time, there was a major litigation filed, and the number of people with cancer mushroomed. What started off as about 28 graduates with cancer mushroomed into 1,000 plaintiffs, some 400 with cancer. The community said these emissions are inconsequential to the children's health. There are epidemiological studies that suggest otherwise.

JJ: What kind of evidence was there linking disease to the oil wells and power plants?
JH: It depends who you talk to. As far as Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) goes, there were three epidemiological studies:
1) The Los Angeles cancer registry found threefold excess of thyroid cancer among young men living adjacent to Beverly Hills High School. But the author of that study said that her findings lacked statistical significance, so it wasn't really an issue. (Her husband was working as a consultant for one of the defendants.)
2) Richard Clapp's study, out of Boston University's School for Public Health Research, found excess rates of cancer among graduates of BHHS from 1990-2000 -- threefold for Hodgkin's disease, twice the expected amount of thyroid cancer and elevated rates of testicular cancer -- but he was working for the plaintiff's law firm, so his study was ruled inadmissible by the judge, because it hadn't been peer-reviewed and published.
3) There was a study that was never made public by Philip Cole, a retired epidemiologist who did a lot of work for industry at the University of Alabama. The school district cited Dr. Cole's study as evidence that there wasn't a higher rate of cancer among students at Beverly Hills High School, but the study was never made public, so I don't know what the study is.

JJ: In November 2006, the judge summarily dismissed the first 12 plaintiff's cases. In October 2007, Frontier Oil offered a $10 million settlement to plaintiffs. Why do you think that happened?
JH: For a couple of reasons. In order to get to trial relatively quickly -- it still took three years -- they had both the defense and plaintiffs agree to select six cancers. The strongest cases never got to court.
The other thing is the defendants, which included Sempra and Chevron, Frontier Oil and Venoco, continued to be willing to spend an unbelievable amount of money to defend these cases.

JJ: What do you think should be done now?
JH: Nobody has ever done a cohort study comparing the population at [this] high school to another high school. That would be a really good first step.

JJ: Why didn't they do that?
JH: They didn't want to invest in that. Had they invested in that, as opposed to all this money they spent on the lawsuit, that might have been an interesting step, but instead, they took great pains to keep information from getting public.
By and large, public health officials hate doing cluster investigations, because they're almost impossible to determine, to establish a link between environmental factors and clusters. And statistically, it could just be by chance that there are all these extra cancers in this particular area. Historically, there have been very few proven. Most of the clusters that are proven are among occupational workers exposed to very high levels of carcinogens. The classic one is asbestos exposure, and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung), which my dad got from smoking Kents with a filter. My dad died in 1996.
JJ: Was that part of the motivation for your book?

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