The Poisoning of an American High School
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*previously published in hardcover as Parts Per Million
The 1998 film The Slums of Beverly Hills, starring Alan Arkin, portrayed a down-and-out family struggling to maintain a residence within the reputable Beverly Hills school district. This endearing story of a family moving from one cheap apartment complex to another affords a glimpse, albeit a fictional one, that differs markedly from the image most Americans have of this exclusive Southern California city. As Joy Horowitz confirms in The Poisoning of an American High School, a significant portion of the population of Beverly Hills actually does live in modest rental apartments to keep their kids in its public schools, considered to be the finest in the country. Teachers here are well paid and outfitted with the best facilities, and therefore usually spend their entire careers teaching generations of Beverly’s children and young adults. Where the school district gets its money—at least a large chunk of it—and the very public legal fight in which it is embroiled are at the center of Horowitz’s finely nuanced portrait of the city where she grew up.
Oil is a dirty business and one not normally associated with Southern California, particularly wealthy communities like Beverly Hills. Yet, most of Los Angeles sits on oil deposits. Before there were orange groves, Hollywood film lots, or an aerospace industry, oil derricks dotted the Los Angeles landscape. Viewers of the film There Will Be Blood and readers of the novel on which it is based, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, will be reminded that the city was built on oil profits. A staggering number of these wells still operate along freeways, apartment complexes, public parks, and even at Beverly Hills High School, which receives an estimated $700,000 in annual royalties from the oil that is pumped on its property. It is a history that most Angelinos would rather hide from view. In fact, just a few years before The Poisoning of an American High School was written, there was a beautification project underway that would mask the oil derrick that lies adjacent to the high school athletic fields. In an ambitious act of public relations the independent oil company Venoco commissioned terminally ill children to decorate the soundproof covering of its oil derrick. The irony of these sick children helping to conceal what some scientists believe could compromise the immune systems of other children was not lost on everyone in Beverly Hills. In her preface to the book, Horowitz laments that Beverly Hills “is nothing if not a place of illusion.”
An oil company trying to clean up its image is not terribly newsworthy. What was—and still is—newsworthy is that graduates from Beverly High, a school with considerable resources, are significantly more likely to get cancer than the general population. There could be many explanations for this medical phenomenon, including merely a statistical anomaly, but to many people a plausible and preventable cause has been the toxic emissions from the neighboring oil wells and power plant. The lawsuit that Horowitz chronicles in this book, Lori Lynn Moss et al. v. Venoco et al., began as a seemingly innocuous conversation at a book signing between Moss, a Beverly graduate with Hodgkin’s disease and thyroid cancer, and Erin Brockovich, the celebrity environmental activist and legal consultant. Several years and hundreds of plaintiffs later the multimillion dollar suit has grown to Bleak House-like proportions. (Dickens, incidentally, would have appreciated the suggestive-sounding names of some of the participants, from Melvin Wells, an inspector who fails to inspect, to Jim Tarr, an environmental engineer, to Wendy Cozen, an epidemiologist whose opinions stretch credulity.) Horowitz’s investigation of the lawsuit reveals a dysfunctional local government, profit-greedy corporations, and all-star legal teams with not-so-pure motives. Between the two sides lies a frustrated and confused public, who eventually divide between those who support the efforts of Brockovich and the plaintiffs and those who view them as opportunistic muckrakers, sullying Beverly’s reputation and jeopardizing the school district’s finances.
In addition to describing the myriad legal maneuverings of both sides, Horowitz, an indefatigable reporter, goes in search of the scientific truth behind the allegations. After all, she too is a graduate from Beverly and several of her own classmates have been diagnosed with cancer. She encounters one roadblock after another. For instance, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control was created to assess environmental hazards at new schools. It could only investigate older schools like Beverly, which was built in 1927, if proof of an imminent danger existed. How, a reasonable person might ask, could you prove imminent danger without first testing the school? Furthermore, her request for records documenting radioactive materials at the wells was denied by the state health department, which cited post-9/11 safety concerns. Perhaps the most outrageous fact that she uncovers is that the estimated monthly costs to Beverly taxpayers for the city’s legal defense is $300,000, more than enough to pay for an authoritative, independent epidemiological study of the toxins in the high school. Near the end of the book, after the judge has dismissed the first round of cases, Horowitz makes the dispiriting conclusion that human greed is more powerful than even the “human impulse to protect one’s children.”
The tragedy here, besides the suffering of the cancer victims, is the unlikelihood that the citizens of Beverly Hills will ever know the truth about the potentially harmful effects of their environment. If any of the remaining suits go to trial, the plaintiffs and defendants will probably settle out of court, thereby sealing the facts of the case. Furthermore, with oil prices at more than $130/barrel (it was a mere $35 when Horowitz began her reporting for the book) our extraordinary need for domestic oil production will prove a disincentive to interfering with the Beverly Hills wells. Finally, even under the best conditions, with ample financial, political, and public support, it is extremely difficult for science to prove a causal link between environment and cancer. As Horowitz reminds readers, “in all of medical history, there has never been a successful neighborhood-cluster investigation.”
Joy Horowitz is a freelance journalist and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Los Angeles magazine, and many other national publications. She has been the recipient of a Ford Foundation Fellowship, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her reporting on indoor air pollution for the Los Angeles Times. She lives in Santa Monica, California.
Q. This book began as an article for Los Angeles Magazine. When did you know this was more than just a magazine story?
When I kept getting stonewalled by public health agencies, by the city of Beverly Hills and its school district, and by corporate lawyers, I knew I was onto something bigger than a magazine piece. Also, I filed many Freedom of Information Act requests for public records, and it was taking way longer than I had expected to receive the documents in question—many of which ended up being redacted.
Q. In the preface you mention that “people want to know what I really think.” Well, as someone who has investigated the case for several years, do you think there is a causal link between the high cancer rates among Beverly graduates and the nearby oil wells and power plant?
I think that prevention is the key issue when it comes to environmental disease. We can do something about preventing kids and teachers from getting sick if we eliminate toxins in their environment, which nobody is seriously talking about at Beverly. Even now. As for a causal link, only time will tell, given the latency period of most cancers. We rely on epidemiological studies to establish causation; one study clearly found elevated cancer rates for testicular cancer, thyroid cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease among young graduates. And let’s not forget the teachers, whose exposures are greater than the kids since they’re there for much longer. So, I was worried when I wrote the book and I’m still worried.
Q. Could you update your readers on the status of the lawsuit? Have any of the remaining plaintiff suits gone to trial? Do you think any of them will?
The lawsuit is on appeal to the California Court of Appeals, which should render a decision next year. So far, none of the plaintiffs’ suits have gone to trial. Personally, I think it’s likely that some will be tried if the appeals court finds that the trial court exceeded its authority in dismissing the first twelve cases.
Q. Since the book was published what kind of reactions have you received from those you interviewed or from any of Beverly’s residents?
Frankly, I was surprised and a little disappointed by how little impact the book has had on the town itself. Then, after the book was published, I obtained internal memos from the city of Beverly Hills, documenting their smear campaign against me. I now see that as a tribute to my years of reporting. If they were trying to silence me or discussion of my work, then I obviously hit a nerve. For the most part, people in Beverly Hills just wanted this whole thing to go away so they could continue to get their royalty checks and not have to think about sick students. And the city and its lawyers were quite successful in making that happen. On the other hand, there are also many people who have expressed their gratitude to me for writing the book. They see it as a sort of document about what truly happened in the community. Many sick people—graduates and teachers—and the family members of Beverly alums who have died have also contacted me, thanking me for telling the truth. Others think I haven’t gone far enough in my criticism. Still others have accused me of being an alarmist. I was also given an Environmental Hero award by a local grassroots group, the Environmental Relief Center. So, it’s really been a mixed reaction, which I take to be a good sign.
Q. I found myself thinking about the movie Michael Clayton while reading your book. Although no one gets murdered in The Poisoning of an American High School, there are some striking parallels between the actions of the defendants in your book and those of the defendants in the movie. Were you amazed to discover the means and methods corporations will employ to protect profits?
As I point out in the book, Latham & Watkins, the law firm representing the oil giant Chevron in the lawsuit, paid one of their expert witnesses about $1 million for her work on the case and her testimony. That was eye-opening. And I thought it was shady when Wendy Cozen, the cancer registry epidemiologist who was conducting a “study” about cancer rates in Beverly Hills, didn’t disclose that her husband Tom Mack, also a cancer registry researcher, was working as a consultant for the one of the oil company’s lawyers. Talk about conflict of interest! But legal counsel hired by corporate defendants will do everything possible to represent their clients—and to win—and that, frankly, is their job. It turns out nobody is entirely clean.
Q. Your father, the first person to successfully sue a cigarette company in a court of law, is a poignant and fitting footnote to this book. Was he an inspiration for the book? Your father’s suit and the one you chronicle in the book are both toxic tort cases but with obvious differences, especially in their outcomes. Do you think it is easier to sue tobacco companies than oil companies today?
Yes, absolutely, my dad and mom were my inspiration. I really didn’t want my father getting involved in a vicious battle with a cigarette company before he died. But when he and my mom discovered that the so-called “Micronite” filter from Kents was made of asbestos—this was the brand that doctors had promoted as being healthy back in the day—they insisted on holding the manufacturer accountable. And I’m really proud of them for having the courage to do so. I don’t think it’s ever easy to sue a corporation, whether it manufactures tobacco or oil. But there’s no question that their courtroom tactics—promoting uncertainty about the health effects of the poisons they create—are identical.
Q. You remind us near the end of the book that you are a Beverly graduate and someone who has begun to question her medical history in light of the facts of the lawsuit. Did you find it difficult to maintain your journalistic objectivity while researching and writing the book?
Not really. What was difficult emotionally was interviewing people like Carol Maloney, whose twenty-seven-year-old son Jack died of brain cancer. I was so moved by her pain and her love for her son. I was also profoundly saddened by the ordeal of my classmate Phil Berman, who’s onto his second cancer. After I spoke to these amazing people, I’d come home and share my experience at the dinner table with my family. My daughter was afraid that I’d get sick, too. And, as it turns out, I was diagnosed with melanoma after I turned in my manuscript. In my case, though, I was extremely lucky because we caught it early. But it was the courage and kindness of the people who shared their stories with me that kept me motivated.
Q. One could walk away from your book believing that an average citizen is completely hopeless to solve an environmental problem in their community—or even determine a problem exists. Would you have any advice to the public about addressing a possible environmental danger?
I think it’s critical to maintain a heavy dose of skepticism when public agencies assure you that there’s no problem in your community. Even though the agencies are there to protect the public’s health, many believe that protecting corporate profits is just as important if not more so. There are some important right-to-know laws on the books that people can take advantage of to obtain public documents, though emissions records are usually estimates, not monitoring data. And there are some amazing environmental justice and grassroots groups all over the country that are addressing these issues every day. For example, since no government agency tracks disease clusters, the National Disease Clusters Alliance (http://clusteralliance.org/) was recently created by a cross-section of non-government organizations, academics, scientists, and community activists to identify and respond to emerging disease clusters across the United States. I didn’t mean to create the impression that the situation is hopeless, but it is dire. Getting informed is critical.
Q. The media is generally free from severe criticism in your book. In fact it is almost absent. Do you think it should have played a larger role in this case?
Absolutely. The media hopped on board because of the celebrity factor, namely Erin Brockovich, and the glitz—Beverly Hills. But then it quickly disappeared. If anything, Brockovich’s presence created an easy target for the press, so publications such as Time, The New Republic, The Columbia Journalism Review, and The Wall Street Journal all accused Brockovich of promoting “junk science”—without ever bothering to look at the public records which supported her argument. Instead, it focused on the human interest story of a comedian-turned-reporter, Norma Zager, from the Beverly Hills Courier who was determined to “bring the bitch down.” The problem is these investigative pieces take time, and most reporters are on a short leash. So, they take the easy way out rather than do their job, which is to hold the government and judiciary accountable.
Q. After writing a memoir about your grandmothers, you tackled a toxic tort case. What could possibly be your next book project?
I recently returned from a week on Kauai, where I learned about the work of some remarkable scientists who are devoted to preserving indigenous plants and the culture that is tied to them. The Hawaiian people treat their plants and natural offerings like ancestors. When plants become extinct, it is as if a relative has died. So, I’m hoping to write a book about the medicinal value of plants, because the whole field is emerging in extraordinary ways.
There are many interesting people profiled in this book, from the celebrity legal team of Brockovich and Masry to the dozens of plaintiffs and Beverly Hills residents. Which person, if any, did you most identify with?
The book presents an interesting example of how local government operates (or fails to operate). Compare your own experiences with your local government agencies (city hall, the school district, the PTA) to those chronicled by the author. Do you think what happened in Beverly Hills is a special case or does it represent a common pattern when conflicts arise between government, the public, and big business?
One of the themes of the book is the failure of our government to adequately protect us from environmental dangers. Looking at this particular case, do you think the system is at fault or is it the people running it to blame?
The book provides a complicated portrait of Beverly Hills, with profiles of its Persian community and those less wealthy than one would expect. How has this book changed your impression of Beverly Hills and of greater Los Angeles?
As with the recent reports of possible BPA poisoning in the country’s food containers, the media usually provides only the briefest outline of the facts when reporting on environmental dangers to our health. Has this book changed the way you view such news reports?
For the most part, we regard science as a noble profession. However, this book contains several examples of highly questionable scientific practices. Discuss the ways science can be used to deliberately mislead the public.
The film Erin Brockovich earned Julia Roberts an Oscar and catapulted its eponymous hero to celebrity status. The Poisoning of an American High School presents a much more complicated picture of toxic tort law and the attorneys behind the plaintiffs. How did your opinion of Brockovich and her law partner Ed Masry change after reading the book?
Were you surprised by the reaction of the city’s residents to news of the lawsuit, particularly those with hostile reactions? How do you think you would have reacted if such a case centered on your own hometown?
The book contains many moving interviews with cancer victims. Discuss their stories and how they manage to cope with their conditions. What does the lawsuit mean to them? If the oil companies and power plant are proven culpable how will this affect their lives?
Judge Mortimer’s decision to dismiss the first twelve cases was an unexpected turn of events. It indicates just how difficult it is bring toxic tort cases to trial, let alone win them. Discuss the judge’s decision and the difficulties facing the remaining plaintiffs in the case. Did you agree with his decision?