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What lies beneath

July 22, 2007|Robin Abcarian

Parts Per Million

The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School

Joy Horowitz

Viking: 442 pp., $25.95

DRIVING along Olympic Boulevard, past the Eiffel Tower-shaped oil pump next to Beverly Hills High School's athletic field, one could always muse about how fitting it was, in a social Darwinist sort of way, that one of the nation's richest public high schools sits on an oil field generating millions of dollars for an already wealthy school district and city. So unfair.

On the other hand, it always seemed a little bit creepy that such an industrial object -- never mind its ugly flower-power wrapping -- was whirring away in the middle of some of the most prized real estate in the country.

It was jarring, if not altogether unexpected in this age of environmental nervousness-bordering-on-neurosis, when, in 2003, news reports about the "poisonous oil wells" at Beverly Hills High began seeping out of the city, thanks in part to the recently minted environmental celebrity Erin Brockovich, who had begun investigating claims of an unusually high incidence of cancer among generations of students and teachers.

Brockovich, fresh off her Oscar triumph (well, technically, it was Julia Roberts' triumph), began sniffing around Beverly Hills High after meeting Lori Moss, a 1992 graduate who'd been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and thyroid cancer. Brockovich sampled the school's air and soil and persuaded her lawyer boss, Ed Masry, that they had a good case. But the pair, famous for winning $333 million for the residents of Hinkley, Calif., after PG&E contaminated their drinking water with chromium-6, needed to find potential Beverly Hills High victims -- lots of them. The only way to do that quickly was to sound the alarm. One terrifying sweeps-week television news report later, an environmental health crisis was born. Lawsuits ensued.

Joy Horowitz, a freelance journalist, was assigned by Los Angeles magazine to write a story about the controversy. Her investigation led to "Parts Per Million," a very long, very complicated tale that is worth the slog.

Horowitz, sympathetic to those who believe their health was compromised by the fumes and oil residue that drifted across the school's track and into classrooms, comes to the story with unique credentials. She graduated from the school in 1971 and was struck at her 30th reunion by how many former classmates had cancer. Even more telling is her family's experience with cancer and lawsuits. Her father, she writes, "was the first American to successfully sue a cigarette company in a court of law." He died of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung usually caused by exposure to asbestos. He had smoked Kents, promoted as a " 'health' brand in the 1950s because of their Micronite filters. In fact, the filters were made of asbestos." Her parents taught her that making "the connection between cancer and environmental factors is not only possible -- it's imperative."

Chemical emissions from the Beverly Hills High pumping site and at a nearby plant in Century City include the carcinogen benzene. One environmental expert working for Brockovich and Masry, who died in 2005, reported that the incidence of Hodgkin's disease among Beverly High graduates from 1976 to 2000 was three times the rate one would expect to see among their peers. "In the world of toxic torts," writes Horowitz, "a doubling of the incidence is usually enough to prevail in court." (This was vigorously disputed by the defendants' experts.) Parents were torn. Some yanked their kids out of school. Some were outright hostile to the idea that the campus could be poisoning their children.

Horowitz set herself a yeoman's task. Toxic tort litigation is nasty, brutish and long, neither for the faint of heart nor the short of attention span. She spent three years interviewing students, teachers, parents, local and state politicians, school board members, lawyers for the alleged victims, lawyers for the defendant oil and energy companies. She talked to toxicologists, oncologists, epidemiologists, environmental scientists, petroleum engineers. She attended community meetings, City Hall meetings, school board meetings. She toured the drilling site and the Sempra facility (which, she writes, the EPA considers a "major source" of air pollution), and made Freedom of Information Act requests. (Release of information about any radioactive materials at the wells was denied, appallingly, by state health officials, who cited post-9/11 homeland security concerns.)

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