"We are at a crossroads, environmentally speaking, in drawing more precise connections between illness and hazardous substances. If we live in a toxic soup of goop, we also increasingly understand how to tease apart fact from fiction, how environmental factors are not going away in cancer statistics. And, how children are affected may be the most striking product of all."
That's Joy Horowitz writing in her excellent, instructive and terrifying book, Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School, the story of a skeptical reporter making her way through a tangle of data and law to determine whether the oil operations on the campus of Bev Hills High did or did not bring about a cluster of cancers and other illnesses.
I read Parts Per Million before I interviewed Horowitz last month for the Central Library's ALOUD series; it now joins Island on Land and King of California on my shelf of enviro-journalist source books that are also well-told, readable stories. And I, personally, have concluded that the oil fields exposed kids and teachers to chemicals that gave them cancer. In one story, nine girls in the same class -- on the same soccer team -- were diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
You only get thyroid cancer from exposure Thyroid cancer is extremely rare in children who haven't been exposed to radioactive iodine, or Iodine-131 or Iodine-133, and Iodine-133 is used in the oil operations.
To understand why you can't use that slam-dunk data in court, you have to read the book. (Or consider this: If those girls had been eating a high-iodine diet, or taking potassium iodine, their thyroid glands wouldn't have been so vulnerable to uptake of I-133. So who's to say who's responsible?)
Horowitz, a Beverly Hills High grad herself, won't go so far as to say the oil fields caused a cancer cluster. But she does demonstrate in the book just how hard it is to prove such clusters exist. And she goes far beyond Beverly Hills to examine all the ways in which public health is compromised by industry's insistence on "sound science," which really just means data that proves its side of the argument.
"It turns out," Horowitz writes, "that writing a book about toxins in the environment is really an exercise in confronting a series of obstacles, especially when a lawsuit is part of the equation." And especially when that lawsuit involves Erin Brockovich, as the plaintiff's suit against the city first did.
Horowitz is making few local appearances in conjunction with the book, but on Tuesday night, August 7th at 7:30 p.m., she'll be signing and talking at a Beverly Hills house party, open to the public.
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