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Cancer Study Finds No Elevated Risk in Beverly Hills

May 07, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

As allegations emerge that an oil well at Beverly Hills High School is causing cancers, a study of the city as a whole has found that residents are not developing certain cancers at higher-than-expected rates.

White residents between ages 15 and 44 in the community do not appear to be at higher risk of developing Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or thyroid cancer than their socioeconomically similar peers, a USC epidemiologist reports.

They developed those types of cancer "at the upper limits of normal," said Wendy Cozen, the report's author and medical epidemiologist for the USC Cancer Surveillance Program.

Cozen acknowledged, however, that the report falls short of the extensive epidemiological review necessary to determine whether alumni of Beverly Hills High School have developed cancer at unexpectedly high rates, as alleged by Erin Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry.

"We don't know whether there's an excess or not in those alumni," Cozen said. "Neither the [county] health department nor the cancer registry has had access to the numbers, names or methods of [Brockovich and Masry's] calculations."

On Monday, Masry & Vititoe, the Westlake Village law firm where Brockovich directs research, filed 191 claims against Beverly Hills and its school system. Those claims were in addition to two dozen claims filed last week on behalf of alumni of the high school who graduated between 1975 and 1997.

Masry and Brockovich, who said they also expect to file a lawsuit, allege that the cancers were caused by emissions of benzene and other pollutants from an oil rig on the high school campus.

Some new claims were filed on behalf of individuals who have health complaints other than cancers and on behalf of residents who did not necessarily attend the high school, attorneys said. Those additions, Cozen said, would dramatically complicate any epidemiological review.

Cozen said her review of the scientific literature turned up no connection between oil-well emissions and the three types of cancer primarily at issue.

Al Stewart, a Dallas attorney working with Masry and Brockovich, countered that "there is a great weight of medical and scientific authority" to support the idea that benzene can be a cause of all blood-borne cancers.

The USC cancer registry tracks all cases of cancer diagnosed in Los Angeles County. There are about 36,000 such cases each year, Cozen said. (Results could not be computed for any cancers in Beverly Hills' non-whites because there were too few cases, Cozen's report said.)

Cozen said she completed her report at the request of Jody Kleinman, a Beverly Hills parent. Kleinman said the report failed to answer key questions.

"I'm this little parent who just wants to do what's right by my kid," said Kleinman, who has a 10th-grader at the high school.

Kleinman, who said she does not intend to join any lawsuit that might be filed, picked up on Cozen's caveats, expressed in the report, that residents might have moved away from Beverly Hills and been diagnosed with cancer while living elsewhere.

Kleinman said she was also concerned to learn that Thomas M. Mack, Cozen's husband and frequent co-author, was retained as a consultant on the Beverly Hills issue by a law firm working for an undisclosed client.

Mack, a USC professor of preventive medicine who often consults for outside clients, said last week that he thought the attorney was working for Venoco Inc., the small operator of the oil rig on the high school campus. But that turned out not to be the case. The lawyer, with the firm of Irell & Manella, was representing a client that did not wish to be identified.

After conferring with Cozen, Mack decided last week not to accept payment from Irell & Manella or from any other firm connected to the matter so as not to create the appearance of a conflict of interest with Cozen.

Cyrus Rangan, director of toxics epidemiology for the county health department, said: "Based on Dr. Cozen's report, parents of any child at Beverly Hills High should not feel any trepidation about sending their children to school there."

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