Silencing Science, Hollywood Style

By Steven J. Milloy
December 24, 1998

We've been bad. For Christmas, Santa's bringing Disney's "A Civil Action." Appropos for Halloween, it's scary cinema about chemicals in the environment. While "It's only a movie," more is planned than just silver screen drama.

John Travolta stars as a personal injury lawyer crusading for "justice" -- unabashedly in the form of millions of dollars -- against two companies accused of dumping chemicals in Woburn, Massachusetts 25 years ago. Allegedly, the chemicals contaminated drinking water, causing eight children's deaths from leukemia -- four times the "average" rate.

The movie recounts the lawsuit filed against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods in the 1980s. The jury vindicated Beatrice Foods. W.R. Grace settled for $8 million, disappointing the plaintiff attorneys who couldn’t prove it dumped chemicals.

The movie pretty much ends there, anti-climactically, except for the final legend: "In 1996, fifteen years after Jimmy Anderson's death, the Massachusetts Dept. Of Health made an official finding, that the contaminants in the water were indeed responsible for causing the leukemia in the children."

That's where an otherwise dull movie will come alive, thanks to anti-chemical activists.

Hoping to make the Woburn tragedy a "cause celebre," much like "Silkwood" was for anti-nuclear activists, the Sierra Club says "With the release of the movie, 'A Civil Action,' many Americans will see the pain that cancer, pollution and the legal system combined to give the people of Woburn... What the movie did not show was how cancer-causing pollution threatens every American family and every community."

The Sierra Club claims U.S. "polluters" dump almost one pound of "cancer chemicals for every person in the country... childhood cancer rates also appear to be increasing at a rate of approximately 1.0% each year... Governors John Engler of Michigan and George W. Bush of Texas, and mayors such as Detroit's Dennis Archer are leading the charge to weaken enforcement of [provisions] that protect families and workers from cancer causing pollution."

But the Sierra Club has skated over several key facts.

Science has yet to demonstrate the Woburn tragedy involved chemicals. Despite the Massachusetts Dept. Of Health, the tragedy remains unexplained. The most timely investigation, including interviews with Woburn residents, indicates that: the victims weren't different from leukemia-free neighbors; the contaminants at issue aren't known to cause leukemia; and no victim had contact with the hazardous waste sites in question.

In contrast, the Massachusetts Dept. Of Health declaration is based on a 20-year-after-the-fact guess of what could possibly have happened. Such revisionism hardly constitutes "science."

Can Woburn be explained? It's possible, if not likely, the tragedy is a statistical artifact. Just by chance, some areas have higher rates of cancer than others. Reports of cancer "clusters", like Woburn, rarely have any explanation other than chance.

Despite the alarm over childhood cancer, rates aren't increasing. Implying an association with chemicals, the EPA claimed in its 1998 Children's Environmental Health Yearbook that "... the overall incidence rate of new cancers in children has increased [by about 12 percent from 1973 to 1994 in the U.S.] .

But science undercuts the EPA theory.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports the increase in childhood brain cancer during 19731994 is due to changes in detection and reporting. The journal Cancer reports "Since the early 1960s, the incidence of childhood cancers, and in particular childhood leukemia, has remained relatively stable, or if anything has risen in geographic areas where there are adequate cancer registration systems." The journal Pediatrics reports the best news of all, children's cancer mortality is down almost 40 percent since 1979.

Efforts to bring science and common sense to environmental protection laws -- the Sierra Club's real target -- can hardly be considered a threat to families and workers. These efforts are aimed at ensuring our limited resources achieve the "biggest bang for the buck" for the public health and environment.

"A Civil Action" was produced by Robert Redford, a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Redford skillfully teed up the anti-chemical agenda. Extreme environmentalists will try to drive that agenda home, regardless of merits. Science and fact get steam rolled by the tragedy of children's deaths.

"A Civil Action" may win an Oscar for activism. It won't win anything for realism.

Mr. Milloy is a co-author of "Silencing Science" (Cato Institute, 1998) and publisher of the Junk Science Home Page.

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