An Uncivil Attack on Business

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Cancer

Coming Jan. 8 to a theater near you: "The W.R. Grace Co. Kills Kids." Well, actually the name of the movie is A Civil Action, starring John Travolta. But the kid-killing business is an intrinsic part of the plot. It’s also false. But if it packs ’em in at the box office by preying on the common misperception that childhood cancer is essentially a man-made disease, that’s all that counts right? Why let science interfere with a riveting tale?

A Civil Action, produced by the Walt Disney Company’s Touchstone Pictures division, is based on Jonathan Harr’s book of the same title which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for over two years. It tells of attorney Jan Schlichtmann and his small law firm "seeking justice" for eight Woburn, Mass. families who lost members seven children and one adult — to leukemia.

John Travolta

After an expensive and inconclusive trial in 1986, Grace settled for $8 million. The families received less than half that after attorneys’ fees and expenses, a mere pittance in a wrongful death suit, so it’s hard to say they won. But the devastating publicity Grace received from the book and now the movie show it to clearly be the loser.

When personal injury lawyers set about identifying the cause of their clients’ illnesses, they use sophisticated methodology. First, they identify someone with deep pockets. Then they find something that "Deep Pockets" did that a jury might accept as the cause of the illnesses.

Schlichtmann found Beatrice Foods, which owned a tannery in the area, and Grace, which owned a machine shop. The only alleged cause of illness mentioned in the movie is trichloroethylene (TCE), a common solvent for cleaning metals. Schlichtmann claimed that in dumping TCE onto the ground, Beatrice and Grace allowed it to ultimately migrate into two wells that served the leukemia victims.

Yes, Grace employees were guilty of dumping TCE behind the small machine shop the corporation had built in Woburn in 1960. And they are now paying dearly to clean it up much more than that $8 million settlement.

Such dumping, however, was an area practice begun literally 350 years earlier when a hide tanner set up shop. Soon the area became the tanning capital of America, using vast amounts and varieties of chemicals in the tanning process, not to mention releasing viruses and bacteria from the dead animals. All of these would eventually work their way into the underground water system.

Indeed, in 1958 two years before Grace opened its machine shop, a city-hired engineer prepared a report saying the water where the authorities wanted to sink two wells was throughly polluted and to not dig there. The city dug anyway.

Further, according to Ohio State University geologist E. Scott Bair, the whole issue of Grace’s TCE reaching the leukemia victims is moot. Based on a computer model of his and one of his doctoral students, Bair says nothing from Grace’s land "could have gotten to the wells in the time period required."

Beatrice got off the hook during the trial because of a geologist’s report finding that its contaminants could not have reached the wells. Yet Schlichtmann himself declared in an appellate brief, "Compared to the Beatrice site, which abuts the wells and is in marsh on extremely soft and porous ground, the Grace site is located on hard-packed ground on a plateau completely out of sight of the marsh and wells and eight times further away." Another company that dumped solvents and other chemicals was located right near Beatrice’s site.

As to TCE, in 1982, when Schlichtmann sued Grace, information on the solvent TCE was relatively sketchy. Now we have the results of numerous rodent studies in which the animals were dosed with thousands of times the amount of chemical that humans might receive in their drinking water. Of the 35 rodent studies in the Carcinogenic Potency Database developed by U.C. Berkeley biologist Lois Swirsky Gold, none has found a TCE-leukemia connection.

What about studies of human exposure? In 1995 the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated four individual studies concerning extremely high occupational exposures to TCE, sometimes for decades. In none were there any statistically significant increases for any type of cancer.

Strangely enough, one actually found a statistically significant protective effect of TCE against cancer, though quite possibly it’s just a fluke. Three of the four studies looked for leukemia and all four found the workers had lower rates of the disease than average.

Cancer clusters are scary, and naturally the victims want to point a finger at some evildoer. But the truth is that they are virtually always found to be due purely to chance. From 1961 to 1983, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention investigated 108 cancer clusters from 29 states and 5 foreign countries. It found no clear cause for any of them.

"Diseases don’t fall evenly on every town like snow," Yale epidemiologist Michael Bracken has noted. "There are clusters of any kind of cancer."

The film notes that Grace’s settlement with the families involved no admission of guilt. But by this time the viewer needs none. Grace dumped a chemical we’re led to believe is a killer and eight people are dead. The audience will walk out of the theater believing they’ve seen another Walt Disney movie with a witch handing out poison apples but this time for real.