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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 11, 1998

Air Date: December 11, 1998


Banned Pesticide Dieldrin: Still with us Today

Steve Curwood talks with John Brock who is a section chief at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Dr. Brock co- authored a study published in the current issue of the British medical journal "The Lancet" which links the banned pesticide Dieldrin to a doubling in breast cancer for women exposed to the compound. (04:40)

Of Birds & Towers / Daniel Grossman

Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman investigates the link between migratory birds and radio towers, and how they may impact birds' flight and health. (09:25)

LOE Garden Spot

Sage advice from Living on Earth's resident gardening expert Michael Weishan on creating indoor winter blooms. (04:55)

Listener Letters

A range of response to our recent query on highway carpool lanes. (01:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... Fifty years ago, then Soviet ruler Josef Stalin declared an extensive tree-planting campaign. (01:30)

A Civil Action: From Woburn, Massachusetts to Hollywood, California / Christopher Ballman

There's a lot of buzz about the forthcoming film starring John Travolta called "A Civil Action" which is opening in theaters this holiday season. Based on the best- selling book of the same name written by Jonathan Harr, it's the story of a lawyer who takes on two companies which contaminated drinking water, resulting in the deaths of residents in Woburn, Massachusetts twenty years ago. Living on Earth's Christopher Ballman has the background on the events which took place in Woburn, and a look at why the movie matters. (25:00)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Daniel Grossman, Christopher Ballman
GUESTS: John Brock, Michael Weishan

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The pesticide Dieldrin may be held responsible millions of cases of breast cancer if researchers corroborate the evidence in a new study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Danish scientists.

BROCK: If this study is duplicated and we prove these findings in other studies and we back this finding up, Dieldrin is a cause for concern.

CURWOOD: Also, scientists are finding that tall communications towers can be hazardous to the health of migrating song birds. In a single night thousands can smash into the structures and perish.

CLARK: There were so many birds lying around on the parking lot. In fact, the transmitter operators that drove there wound up flattening a number of birds. We had to sort of scrape them off just to identify them for our tally.

CURWOOD: That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this summary of the news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Banned Pesticide Dieldrin: Still with us Today

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The current issue of the British medical journal the Lancet details new evidence of the link between synthetic chemicals and increased risk of cancer. This time the culprit is Dieldrin, the pesticide that was bAnned in the US in the 1980s. The study looked at blood serum gathered from nearly 8,000 women in Denmark in 1976. It found that any exposure to Dieldrin increased the risk of having breast cancer, and that those with the highest exposure to Dieldrin were twice as likely to have breast cancer. John Brock is a section chief at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and a coauthor of the study. He says even though Dieldrin was bAnned, it is still very much with us today.

BROCK: Dieldrin is still, was still used for termite control until about 1985. So it's in the basement of most homes right now, actually, throughout the Southeast. So it's still in our environment. The second thing is, Dieldrin's lifetime in the soil and how long it lasts in the soil, the half-life, is about 60 years as long as it's not exposed to the sun. So it's still in our soil, too. These persistent compounds, these persistent organochlorine compounds, last for years and years and years and years. So they're going to be with us for some time in our food supply, in our homes, and all around us.

CURWOOD: There have been a number of previous studies that have shown no correlation between exposure to pesticides of the organochlorine group that include Dieldrin. And now there's your study, which shows a pretty strong correlation. Why do you suppose the difference?

BROCK: There's 2 reasons. One reason is, most of the other studies have not measured Dieldrin. Most studies only focused on DDT, metabolites, and PCBs. We do a screen for many different compounds, and Dieldrin was one of those compounds. The second reason is, most of the other breast cancer studies had been done in the United States, where the levels of Dieldrin exposure are in fact lower. So you would expect that the correlation would be harder to find.

CURWOOD: How many chemicals did you screen for from the serums that were offered to you by the Danes?

BROCK: About 48 chemicals.

CURWOOD: And Dieldrin was the one that lit up the lights.

BROCK: Right. None of the others really showed any significant effect.

CURWOOD: Well, tell me, what kind of -- what level of exposure was necessary to increase one's risk of breast cancer?

BROCK: The levels of Dieldrin in these women were a little bit higher, in general, than we find in the United States. But they were not occupational exposures. These were background levels of exposures on the order of half a part per billion.

CURWOOD: This sounds like a tiny amount to be exposed to.

BROCK: Right. It is a tiny amount, it is a very small amount of Dieldrin.

CURWOOD: How many Danish women percentage-wise would have this much in their bodies?

BROCK: Well, in the total group that we looked at, about 70% of Danish women would have levels around this.

CURWOOD: So, 70% of Danish women would have enough Dieldrin in their bodies to place them at an increased risk of breast cancer.

BROCK: If this study is duplicated, and we prove these findings in other studies and we back this finding up, Dieldrin is a cause for concern.

CURWOOD: These are quite interesting numbers. What's the percentage of women in the United States who have the level of Dieldrin in their bodies comparable to the Danish women who had the problem?

BROCK: If you go back to the 70s where these blood samples were originally taken in Denmark and do a comparison to women in the 70s in this country, the levels back then were about 10 to 20%. Today I'm not exactly sure what the levels are because we're in the middle of doing that analysis now.

CURWOOD: Potentially that's a lot of cancer cases.

BROCK: If this finding is true, and holds up under repeated studies, I'd say yes, it is a significant finding.

CURWOOD: John Brock, I'm wondering, how much should results like this be a cause of concern to women?

BROCK: I think it's a concern, but it's not absolute proof. When we started looking at smoking and lung cancer, when CDC started first looking at that, the first couple of studies weren't given that much weight. It wasn't until the studies overwhelmingly showed the same result in different groups of people, in different countries, and then you have a case. Then you have a case of evidence where you say okay, now we've got a public health issue here that really needs to be addressed immediately. With breast cancer and Dieldrin I think that this is just the first study, and I think that we need to keep doing these kinds of studies until we have a case against Dieldrin. If it in fact is the bad actor, or one of the bad actors in breast cancer.

CURWOOD: John Brock is a section chief and research chemist at the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Thank you, sir.

BROCK: Thank you.

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Of Birds & Towers

CURWOOD: Each fall, billions of song birds migrate to warmer climes in remarkable feats of flight. Ornithologists don't really know how birds like the tiny black pole warbler, which weighs less than an ounce, manage to fly thousands of miles from Canada to the Andes in South America. But they do know that the ranks of the warbler, and many other species of migratory song birds, are in serious decline. Loss of habitat, pesticide use, even house cats are all believed responsible for the song birds' demise. And as Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman reports, researchers are now identifying another looming threat.

(A truck runs noisily)

EVANS: We're about less than a mile from the towers, and it's just amazing how high these reach up into the sky.

GROSSMAN: Bill Evans maneuvers a beat-up pickup truck down a bumpy road to a twin set of steel TV towers. The Cornell University ornithologist is worried that towers like these are a threat to song birds. Tonight he's brought me here just south of Syracuse, New York, to show me why. He pulls up to the nearest tower.


EVANS: You can see how this -- this tall structure goes up a thousand feet. And you can see the guy wires lit.

GROSSMAN: Although the latticework tower itself is invisible in the darkness, its looming silhouette is marked by blinking aircraft warning beacons climbing its spine.

EVANS: Let's see, how many sets? One, two, three, four, five, six tiers of red lights.

GROSSMAN: Researchers have discovered that on overcast fall nights, song birds sometimes hit towers like this one and die by the hundreds, and even thousands. Bill Evans says these warning lights cause the trouble. Most song birds migrate at night to avoid predators and use stars to navigate. But on cloudy evenings, he says, the migrants must rely on other cues for guidance.

EVANS: So they're bombing along at night, and they see lights.

GROSSMAN: And in the fog these lights create a brilliant, glowing ball. Bill Evans says the birds appear confused and think it's day time.

EVANS: So they tend to stay in that lighted area, and as more and more birds keep migrating by and getting into that area, you get a little tornado of birds, almost. And we think that the birds collide with one another, they collide with the tower structure, especially the guy wires, which aren't lit as well as the tower structure.

GROSSMAN: The threat of the metal spires is emerging as a source of conflict between bird lovers and the communications industry, which by and large discounts these events as freak accidents. Bill Evans says large kills are unusual, but common enough to pose a worrisome threat. And he's carrying this message to government agencies and ornithological societies with zeal. He says his crusade began by chance 2 years ago on a Nebraska hilltop. He was recording bird calls one foggy night at the base of a tall communications tower.

EVANS: On a couple occasions I heard this collision, which sounded like it was with the tower structure. And then on one occasion I even heard a thud on the ground, which must have been right near the microphone.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Evans kept the recording he made that night, and he plays me the scratchy tape.

EVANS: Okay, here's this staticky noise, insects. Right here, there's that little shhh of the wing sound and the collision... and right there was the thud on the ground.

It really wasn't until I heard these recordings of the birds hitting the tower that it really hit me in my heart. That was sort of a despairing moment and I basically had to divert some of my attention to this other issue.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Evans is the most vocal person calling attention to the threat of towers, but so far he's relying on the work of others to make his case. And one of the most important studies is being done by a researcher in Buffalo, New York.

(Echoing footfalls)

GROSSMAN: Arthur Clark walks briskly to his fourth floor office in Buffalo's Museum of Science.

(Footfalls continue; keys jingle)

CLARK: This is the vertebrate department.

GROSSMAN: Mr. Clark is the curator of the museum's bird collection. For more than 30 years he's visited 3 tall towers near here after overcast fall nights. He collects the fallen birds he's found and keeps them in a giant walk-in freezer.

This is your freezer here?

CLARK: Yes. This is our walk-in freezer. (A door slides.) You can see it says tower kill, this is TV tower kill. These are tower kills from '71, '80, '82. (Fans run.) If you want, we can take a box out and --

GROSSMAN: So how many birds do you have here?

CLARK: Well, a good percentage of the 20,000 that we picked up over the 32 years.

GROSSMAN: It's too cold to stay in the freezer for long. Mr. Clark grabs a box and hustles for the exit. This box once held stationery. Now it's neatly packed with 96 colorful corpses.

CLARK: Here are some rose-breasts grosbeaks. Some Swainson's thrushes. Some palm warblers. And these are black-throated blue warblers, here's a male black-throated blue, isn't that a beautiful bird?

GROSSMAN: Mr. Clark has collected more than 110 species of birds. He keep a tally sheet showing how many die each night. On 3 occasions, the total has topped 1,000.

CLARK: We were not able to drive up to the buildings. There were so many birds lying around on the parking lot. In fact, the transmitter operators that drove there wound up flattening a number of birds. We had to sort of scrape them off just to identify them for our tally.

GROSSMAN: And these towers are not the only ones of concern. One researcher collected more than 120,000 birds in a 37-year period at a tower in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In January 1998, as many as 10,000 sparrow-like Lapland larkspurs died in a single night after colliding with a tower in Kansas. And there are about 40,000 other communications towers tall enough to require warning beacons. Some researchers say the nationwide death toll could exceed 4 million song birds each year. That's a small fraction of the total population, but many researchers worry about adding stress to these birds, since scores of song bird species are already in decline.

MANVILLE: The red flags are going up. These are fairly significant impacts.

GROSSMAN: Al Manville is a top official at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal agency responsible for the health of migratory birds. He says the problem is America's mania for wireless communications. And things are getting worse, not better.

MANVILLE: The new digital PCS phone system is going to go online. It may require, within the next 10 or 15 years, over 100,000 towers nationwide. And then the biggies are these digital TV towers and the estimates I have are, there are going to be, over the next 10 years or so, at least 1,000 new digital television towers put online of a fifth of a mile or so in height. These are the behemoths, the monsters.

GROSSMAN: Some of these huge towers are already underway. And they're proving controversial.

(A gavel strikes.)

MAN: This is a regular meeting of the planning board of the town of ...

GROSSMAN: The planning board of Baldwin, Maine, is called to order. On the docket is a proposal by WMTW to build a 1,700-foot digital tower, 200 feet taller than the Empire State Building. A number of Baldwin residents oppose the plan, including Rebecca Willman.

WILLMAN: This is the worst of all possible circumstances. It's 40 miles from the coast of Maine. It's a foggy area. It's the North Atlantic migratory route. It's an enormous tower on a bit hill. There's no question that this tower is going to kill birds, and that is something we cAnneot live with.

GROSSMAN: This is the board's fourth in a tumultuous series of meetings on the tower. Many objections to the project have been raised, but so far the plAnneing board has been unimpressed. A vote is called. The decision is unanimous.

MAN: The conditional use permit for WMTW Holding Company for a communications tower is approved.

GROSSMAN: Previously, the station's general manager, David Kaufman, had refused to speak to me. I catch up with him as the meeting breaks up.

(People milling)

GROSSMAN: Can I ask you a couple questions, Mr. Kaufman?


GROSSMAN: What about this issue about birds? Is this a concern?

KAUFMAN: I think the record speaks for itself.

GROSSMAN: Which is what?

KAUFMAN: I think it stated that it does not appear to be a significant problem.

GROSSMAN: Executives at the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade association for TV and radio, are also downplaying the threat of new towers. The group turned down a request for a taped interview, although one attorney there said the number of birds affected was too small to be of concern. Other communications officials are not so dismissive.

SHARK: I think that we're open to a solution, as long as it doesn't stand in the way of the mandate that we have, you know, to build out systems and to serve customers.

GROSSMAN: Allen Shark is president of the American Mobile Telecommunications Association, which represents radio phone customers like taxicab companies. He says technology is causing the problem and could also be the solution.

SHARK: My hope would be that somebody listening to this program, somebody who has read about this, somebody who's becoming aware of this is going to say, I wonder if this is a business opportunity for me? I wonder if I could experiment with a tower in some location in some simulated area, where I could come up with some kind of warning signal, warning device that might work toward thwarting birds, you know, hitting my towers or guy lines.

GROSSMAN: But no one is stepping up to the plate yet. Meanwhile, thousands of new towers are going up each year. And that's making the journey for winged migrants harder than ever. For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: During the cold, dreary winter, your indoors can bloom. It's remarkably easy. That's next here on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

(Crackling cellophane, unpacking sounds)

LOE Garden Spot

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Not too long ago, Living on Earth's traditional gardener, Michael Weishan, gave us some tips on planting bulbs in the back yard, and that's an autumn chore. This week, as we join Michael in his greenhouse, we find him sorting through flower bulbs once again. Michael, what do you plan to do with these?

WEISHAN: Well, these we're going to actually plant inside for winter bloom, which is really a very nice thing in the middle of the winter, when it's all snowy and cold outside.

CURWOOD: Sometimes I hear people call this forcing bulbs. I mean, what do you do? You sort of take out a revolver and point it at the bulb? What?

WEISHAN: (Laughs) Pretty close. It's like grow or else. The reason it's called forcing is because we're forcing the bulbs to bloom sooner than they would normally.

CURWOOD: Okay. And what's the best kind of bulbs for forcing?

WEISHAN: Well, the best kind of bulbs for forcing are those labeled "for forcing." (Both laugh.) There's a bit of a trick to the operation because some bulbs don't force particularly well, and the easiest way for the novice to figure out which is which is simply to read the labels. They'll often say "specially good for forcing" or "not good for forcing."

CURWOOD: Can we do this with tulips?

WEISHAN: Yes, of course you can do it with tulips. Here, I'll show you how to do it. (Digs into bulb box.) Obviously we have a greenhouse so it's a little easier, but you could do this on a kitchen table or a basement work bench or anywhere. Just spread out some newspapers. This is actually a special clay pot for bulb forcing.

CURWOOD: Now, what makes it so special for forcing? It's oblong. It's shaped in an oval as opposed to round.

WEISHAN: Well, you can get more into it, so it makes a nicer display. Any pot will work, whatever, plastic, clay, whatever you have. So now I'm going to get some drainage pieces. Steve, they're right behind you in that basket there. See those big clay shards?


WEISHAN: Stand back, everybody. (Hammers) There we are. (Hammers) There's a tendency to have 10,000 of them in the garden. Every time you move around you break a clay pot, practically. So I just throw a few in the bottom.

CURWOOD: So you're careful to put them over the holes in the bottom.

WEISHAN: The point is to put them not just scattered on the bottom, but to put them over the holes. It allows the water to drain out the holes but not the soil. So just fill it out with soil; I'm using just a standard potting soil, and I'm going to fill it up about a third of the way. And then we're going to take these bulbs and we're just going to put them very close together. Just force them down in there, putting the pointy ends up. And then, nothing more than just simply covering them with soil. Now, we'll water these very heavily, and I'm going to put them outside in the cold frame so that they can sit. They need a period of cold dormancy. You could put them out on a back terrace, or on a fire escape if they let you, anyplace. A cold hallway. Anyplace where it's going to drop into the 40s. Not terrifically cold, you don't want them to freeze. But you want them to sit for 6 weeks or so and let them root. Because otherwise the tops will grow and then they won't succeed. And you'll see, when the tops start to peek up above the soil surface, it's time to actually bring them in. And then it's pretty much foolproof. You just continue right onwards as you would just with a regular house plant.

CURWOOD: Now Michael, I know, no father will pick one child over another, but what's your favorite bulb?

WEISHAN: I don't know how well this reflects on me, but I'm particularly fond of the idiot-proof bulbs, especially the paper whites. These are almost a no- brainer for forcing bulbs.

CURWOOD: Sounds like it's right up my alley, then.

WEISHAN: Yeah. It's really quite easy. As a matter of fact, you can even grow them in just a bit of gravel and water. I like to grow them in an actual pot. That shallow bulb pot over there we're going to be using.


WEISHAN: Paper whites can go in a much shallower container because there's no possibility of reusing them. Some of the bulbs that we force, like the tulips and some of these daffodils, can actually be planted outside after they're done blooming, when the weather warms up. So you want them in a deeper container where they're going to have a good soil depth and general good nutrition. Paper whites, you can plant them in anything, even gravel. The only thing to keep in mind is that unlike most bulbs, you don't bury them. You plant them so that the little tips are just protruding right out of the top of the soil. And see, that one's already sprouted considerably; they're really starting to go. So you just put them in there with their tips protruding outward, and voila. They don't have to go through a period of cold, they don't have to be set outside, nothing like regular bulbs. They're just ready to plant, put them inside your house, and off you go to the races.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you, Michael.

WEISHAN: My pleasure, Steve.

CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is Living on Earth's traditional gardener and publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening. If you want to find out more about gardening, try our Web site. The address is www.livingonearth.org. That's www.livingonearth.org. And when you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.

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(Music up and under)

Listener Letters

CURWOOD: And now, comments from you, our listeners.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Recently, we asked you to weigh in on the subject of carpool lanes, and here's a sampling of the response. William Kinkaid, who hears us on KWMU in St. Louis, says carpool lanes are a mere band-aid for a bigger problem: the lack of alternative means of transportation.

KINKAID: In order to fix the big problem, a carpool lane isn't going to do much more than give us a feeling that we're moving in the right direction. But I think that money that is going to those cities should probably be invested in a long-term project to get us off of the petroleum and onto some other more renewable energy source.

CURWOOD: John Drennan, who listens to us on KQED in San Francisco, called from his car phone to register his vote against carpool lanes.

DRENNAN: I'm currently on Highway 280, which I regularly commute on. And on my evening commutes, the carpool lane emerges at a certain point, and that actually causes the only traffic problem that I have in my whole commute.

CURWOOD: But another KQED listener, Bobbi Ohs, says the carpool backlash shows just how closed-minded and selfish people can be. "Commuters," she says, "should put more effort into finding ways to cooperate."

You can call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. Or write to 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org.

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It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Music up and under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new ways to provide energy for the world economy without harm to the environment: www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

(Music up and under)

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: The best-selling story of toxic contamination is now a major motion picture. We update the characters and crimes that inspired A Civil Action. The legacy of Woburn, Massachusetts, is just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, dedicated to your health and the health of the planet.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

(Music up and under)

The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: Fifty years ago, Soviet ruler Josef Stalin launched his so-called Great Plan for the transformation of nature. With central Russia facing dust bowl conditions similar to what hit the American West in the 1930s, Soviet scientists believed trees would shield their topsoil from getting dried out and blown away. Great arborways would be created and extend thousands of miles across the plains of Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine. In all, an area 4 times the size of Germany would be protected. By the end of 1949, trees had been planted on 1.2 million acres, but 2 years later nearly half of them were gone. Workers found it hard to keep up with the pace, the rate of planting declined, and the trees were left untended. The program ended shortly after Stalin's death in 1953. It's estimated that only 10 percent of the trees survive today. Modern China also faces colossal environmental problems, and officials there recently Anneounced a massive tree-planting program to combat erosion and flooding. But the Chinese say they hope to employ a greener thumb. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

Related link:
The Josef Stalin Internet Archive

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(Music up and under)

A Civil Action: From Woburn, Massachusetts to Hollywood, California

MAN: All rise. Court is now in session. The Honorable Walter J. Skinner residing. Civil Action 841672.

CURWOOD: The film A Civil Action opens in theaters soon. Based on the book by Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action tells the story of a Boston lawyer who sets out to prove that 2 giant corporations contaminated drinking water and caused the deaths of children in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the late 1970s and early 80s. A Civil Action spent more than 2 years on bestseller lists, and with John Travolta in the lead role, an Oscar buzz already about it, the film is expected to garner widespread attention. But there's more to the Woburn story than will be told on the silver screen. Living on Earth's Chris Ballman has this primer on A Civil Action and the lesson Woburn holds for the nation.

(A brass band plays)

BALLMAN: Woburn, Massachusetts, is a city with middle-class aspirations that clings proudly to its working class past. Its school teams are called The Tanners, a nod to the leather industry that put this town on the map.

(Cheerleaders shout: "Eric! Feingard! Brian! Healy! That's their names and keep the Tanners in the game!)

BALLMAN: The first Tannery opened in 1648. By the Civil War there were 20. The tAnneries needed chemicals, and chemicals like Eaton, Stauffer, and Monsanto settled in along the Aberjona River to supply them.

(Trickling water)

BALLMAN: Given its history, some folks say Woburn is just the place you'd expect to find toxic contamination. And one day they did, in East Woburn, along the Aberjona, just upstream from the home of Anne Anderson.

(Water runs from the tap)

ANDERSON: I thought maybe there was some kind of a bacteria or something that was being introduced through the water supply.

BALLMAN: The water in Anne Anderson's home never looked, smelled, or tasted right. Not since the day her family moved here in 1965. Back then, Woburn was a growing Boston suburb with a growing demand for water. So city officials sank 2 wells, G and H, into the then-untapped Aberjona watershed. They'd been told the water was polluted but didn't pass the warning onto residents.

(More water runs, kitchen sounds and footfalls)

BALLMAN: When Anne Anderson asked city officials about the water, they assured her it was safe. Still, she felt uneasy.

ANDERSON: At that time, there really wasn't any bottled water. There really weren't any filters to speak of. And we really didn't know what to do, except complain, and that wasn't getting us anywhere.

BALLMAN: Then in 1972, Anne Anderson's youngest child, Jimmy, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. And soon she learned he wasn't alone.

(Traffic sounds)

ANDERSON: This is where the Zoners lived. They lost their son, oh gosh, 1974, I think.

BALLMAN: Anne Anderson is taking me on a cancer drive. She's not raising money. She's pointing out the homes of neighbors where the disease left its calling card.

ANDERSON: This is where another family lives, and their son with leukemia is still living. They lost another son with another cancer.

BALLMAN: Anne Anderson kept running into East Woburn families with leukemic children at the hospital, at the library, at church. Something wasn't right. There were too many kids in too small an area with the same rare disease.

ANDERSON: The Gomashes lived there.

BALLMAN: In Anne Anderson's mind there were only 2 things the children in her neighborhood shared: the air and the water. And everyone knew the water was bad.

ANDERSON: This is where the Toomeys lived.

BALLMAN: She tried to convince her husband, her doctor, and town officials something was wrong, but no one listened.

ANDERSON: The city engineer who used to pooh-pooh this issue, he subsequently died of leukemia. So you have to wonder what was going through his mind.

BALLMAN: Then she took a map of Woburn. With blue push pins Anne Anderson marked the homes of children who had died of leukemia, red pins for those living with the disease. Twenty-eight pins in all, 12 in her neighborhood alone.

ANDERSON: And the Kanes live on this street. And this is where the Aufieros live, on this street. So there you have it.

BALLMAN: What the city of Woburn had was a cancer cluster. And for Anne Anderson it suddenly all made sense when test on wells G and H revealed high concentrations of trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, 2 chemicals suspected of causing cancer.

ANDERSON: All that happened in '79. Jimmy died in 1981. The following year we filed the suit.

(Morning Edition theme music)

EDWARDS: This is Morning Edition. I'm Bob Edwards. In Boston today, opening arguments begin in the trial of 2 major corporations accused of water contamination, that might have led to the deaths of 5 children...

BALLMAN: In March of 1986, after 4 years of preparation, the nation watches as a trial begins in Federal Court in Boston. For the first time, private citizens are seeking damages against corporations for polluting water and causing illness and death. Their attorney is Jan Schlichtmann, a cocky but inexperienced personal injury lawyer.

SCHLICHTMANN: The mistakes that I made in that case could fill a book, you know, and did.

BALLMAN: The book is A Civil Action, the bestselling story of Jan Schlichtmann's 8-year ordeal and the inspiration for the Hollywood film. Author Jonathan Harr says chronicling Jan Schlichtmann's unfolding drama was like watching a man dive into a black hole.

HARR: He thought this case would make him rich. He thought it would make him famous. And he thought he would be doing good not only for the Woburn families, but he thought he would be setting precedent as far as the way corporations treat the environment. And it didn't quite work out that way.

BALLMAN: The Woburn families were pitted against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, 2 of the nation's biggest corporations. It was a David versus Goliath challenge, and Jan Schlichtmann became obsessed by it. He spent millions on expert witnesses and plunged his law firm deep into debt in an all-out quest for a verdict that would rock the walls of corporate America.

SCHLICHTMANN: You know, there was so much at stake for all of us, that it had to be us against them. You know. And only one side could win, and only one side could lose. And it was hard to think of any other scenario.

BALLMAN: But Jan Schlichtmann's co-counsel, Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson. says the deck was stacked against them early on, when the attorney for Beatrice Foods persuaded the judge to split the trial into 2 parts. Charles Nesson says it was a decisive maneuver.

NESSON: We had to prove first that the water was polluted by Beatrice and Grace. Then we had to prove that it actually caused the leukemia. And his strategy was to cross-examine the witnesses at such length and so boringly that the whole thing just strung out. So after dragging the first one out, he's able basically to say to the jury, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you find for the plaintiffs on these issues, you'll be back here next week for stage 2. Whereas if you find for us, you can go home to your wives and children, your husbands and lovers." That was a very good strategy, very good.

BALLMAN: For his part, defense attorney Jerome Facher says strategy was only part of the courtroom saga. He says the plaintiffs' case just didn't stand up.

FACHER: When you opt for the jury, you take with it the requirements that you must prove your case. And you must show causation. And in this case, the evidence was not there.

BALLMAN: After 5 months of testimony and arguments, the jury returns a split verdict. It absolves Beatrice Foods of the dumping charges, but says W.R. Grace did contaminate the groundwater. The second part of the trial against Grace is set, the one in which the families would finally get to tell their stories, and in which their lawyers would try to link the dumping with the diseases. But it never happens. Facing a crushing legal debt and with a difficult case yet to prove, Jan Schlichtmann settles with Grace and the families accept the terms. After legal fees and expenses, they receive about $450,000 each for the loss of their children. The verdict against W.R. Grace is dismissed. Both sides declare victory, but the companies seem like the only winners. Attorney Charles Nesson.

NESSON: The thing that just really fried me was that the families, they never even got in the courtroom. We went through that whole thing, and those families never got into court. And it's their story.

ANDERSON: The end was really so frustrating and unfair. There was no sense of victory or any positive feelings about it, really, at all. Kind of makes you angry that the system doesn't work the way it should.

BALLMAN: The long ordeal left Anne Anderson and the other Woburn parents feeling drained and defeated. But the story doesn't end with the judge's gavel.

HARR: Woburn was not a failure.

BALLMAN: A Civil Action author Jonathan Harr.

HARR: This wasn't the case that rang the bell in the corporate boardrooms of America. But that doesn't mean that a bell wasn't rung. And there's a consciousness now that has slowly gained momentum, that, you know, without clean water and clean air, we don't have a society at all.

BALLMAN: What the Woburn families couldn't prove in the courtroom, they helped establish elsewhere.

OZONOFF: You start out with a basic structure here (chalk on blackboard), these are 2 carbons connected with a double bond with hydrogens stuck off each end. This is a common hydrocarbon found in nature called ethylene.

BALLMAN: Dr. David Ozonoff is an epidemiologist who chairs the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University. He says because of research done in Woburn, we know a lot more about how chemicals contaminate groundwater and make people sick.

OZONOFF: The contaminants involved, trichloroethylene and, to a slightly lesser extent, perchloroethylene, are 2 of the most prevalent contaminants in groundwater from hazardous waste sites in the United States. And what we think happens is that the body sees the chemical and it tries to detoxify it. In the course of doing that, it appears to produce new chemicals that are themselves carcinogenic, and it's those metabolites that we think are doing the mischief. And there may be several kinds of mischief involved, not just cancer. Birth defects and autoimmune diseases now are being implicated.

BALLMAN: Dr. Ozonoff credits Woburn citizens with helping break new scientific ground, where even he had been reluctant to go.

OZONOFF: I have a very melancholy history of having dealt with Woburn.

BALLMAN: In the late 1970s a group from Woburn asked Dr. Ozonoff to help them find out what was making the children sick. Dr. Ozonoff was just starting his work on water contamination. He told the group he didn't have the scientific tools to help them.

OZONOFF: To give citizens in Woburn credit, they didn't stop at my office. They went on, they were persistent, and they finally found somebody who really became obsessed with cracking the scientific issue. They did get that study done. No thanks to me. So, one of the lessons I learned was when they come to you with a problem, you don't stop there, but you use it as an occasion to develop some new science.

BALLMAN: Dr. Ozonoff says statistical methodology and water distribution models developed for Woburn are still in use today. And the enormous amount of data that residents there collected about the cancer cluster helped force public officials to deal with the toxic waste crisis, not just in Woburn but across the nation.

WOMAN: In a small school servicing that area, there are 5 cases, leukemia.

MAN: Clearly, from a statistical point of view, dramatically unusual.

BALLMAN: In the early 1980s, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy invited Anne Anderson and other Woburn parents and activists to Washington, DC. They told their stories to lawmakers considering legislation to clean up the nation's worst toxic dumps. President Ronald Reagan's proposals to downsize government and a massive budget deficit loomed in the background. But the testimony of Woburn parents and panic-stricken residents of Love Canal, New York, put a human face on the need for a national cleanup. Superfund became law and was later funded with $9 billion. Senator Kennedy says the Woburn folks deserve a lot of the credit.

KENNEDY: Rather than just sort of burying their own grief, they took this on because they felt so strongly that the kind of really, in this case, arrogancy of the bureaucracy in failing to respond to such an obvious health hazard was unconscionable. And they continued to work and work and they made the extraordinary difference.

BALLMAN: Eventually, investigations into the extent of Woburn's toxic contamination led to the creation of 2 Federal Superfund sites there, and I've joined a group of citizens on a tour of one of them.

MAN: We'll stop a little ways up here, and you get a really good sense of what the whole project's all about.

BALLMAN: Today, new life is rising on the former home of tanneries and chemical operations.

(Large vehicles moving)

BALLMAN: Clean-up got underway here about 5 years ago. The plan is to cap the contaminated land with a thin synthetic fabric, then cover it with 16 inches of sand, and then topsoil and vegetation. Soon a regional transportation center, a big-name department store, and an office park will arrive. The area once considered the fifth most polluted place in the nation will now bring jobs and tax revenue to town.

MAN: You're actually transforming this whole place. You won't recognize it in 24 months.

BALLMAN: This project is touted as a model success story of how to make contaminated land productive again. But later in the day I get another tour of the same area, from a woman with a different story to tell.

LATOWSKY: Golly, it's been a while since I've done this.

BALLMAN: Gretchen Latowsky is a former director of the citizen's group whose work helped spur the investigation of this site. She says she's proud of the progress that's been made, but she's also frustrated by what she calls compromises in the clean-up. Officials said it would be too expensive and too difficult to remove the tons of poisons dumped here over the decades, or to treat them on-site. So, since this site is zoned commercial use only, they decided to cap the waste and keep a close watch on groundwater contamination. Gretchen Latowsky says the waste isn't staying put.


LATOWSKY: What bothers me is, after 19 years of effort in this area, we have a $71 million cap on the industriplex site. And that's all we have. We don't have any groundwater treatment system. Nothing has been done about the benzene and toluene plumes which are migrating down the watershed. And we have all of the waste in place. So are we any further forward than we were?

BALLMAN: One answer to that question lies along a stream just a few yards beyond the treated Superfund area.

(Running stream water)

BALLMAN: On the surface, at least, it appears Woburn still has a ways to go.

LATOWSKY: This is Halls Brook (splashes), flowing into the Hall's Brook holding area that goes into the Aberjona River down into the wells G and H area.

BALLMAN: Jeez. Frankly, it's pretty surprising that knowing the history of this story and everything that's been done and the consequences of it, and to come down here and -- well, you describe it.

LATOWSKY: Well, you see, there's a car battery and a drum. Looks like the engine of a car. Trash everywhere. You name it, it's right here. Makes you wonder why is this allowed to happen? And why are the property owners along the banks of this stream not cleaning it up?


BALLMAN: I follow Halls Brook south to where it meets the Aberjona River. Then about a mile down into the marsh, where the contaminated wells once stood. This is Woburn's other Superfund site. More than 2,000 tons of contaminated soil have been hauled away from here. And in an operation that's slated to last 30 years, groundwater is being treated by 3 separate systems. The goal is to make the water in this aquifer safe to drink, but no one is talking about actually reopening the wells. Ever.

(Running water; fade to traffic sounds)

BALLMAN: I watch the river flow under Salem Street and resurface just east of Pond Street. I'm back in the heart of the old cancer cluster, Anne Anderson's neighborhood. And I try to measure the change that's taken place here since the discovery of the tainted wells and the leukemia cases 25 years ago. The clean-up of Woburn's pollution is far from complete and far from perfect, but some things have changed.

ANDERSON: In those days, when I think back, it was so different inasmuch as there was no understanding, and no respect for anything like this environmentally. And agencies and people that were set up to protect us put obstacles in our way, did nothing but try to dispute what we were bringing to them, took adversarial roles. That can't be done any more because now it's a credible issue.

BALLMAN: But Anne Anderson's vindication comes from more than just the emergence of new political realities. In 1996, science finally caught up with the law. Ten years after the trial, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health concluded that the families were right about their children's illnesses all along. Attorney Jan Schlichtmann.

SCHLICHTMANN: After 18 years of struggle, the state government, for the first time in our history, declared that the families' fear was correct, was well- placed. That in fact the water was responsible for the high incidence of leukemia in the community. And because of that, because Anne and the families have taken steps to show the world the truth about these chemicals, and the conduct that kills, and that every community has no longer, and no regulator, no company, no longer has the excuse of ignorance. We now know. And we'll have only ourselves to blame if we don't take steps because of it.

BALLMAN: That recognition marked a hard-fought and important victory for the families, but it was also bittersweet. Years were lost in the madness of denial and guilt and the obsession to find out what killed the children. Friendships soured, and marriages, including Anne Anderson's, ended. Everyone's moved on with their lives, but Ms. Anderson says such a very public grief can last a very long time.

ANDERSON: I have always just tried to keep it, keep pushing it back, pushing it back, pushing it back. Because it's so very difficult to deal with. I'm afraid if I sit down and really dwell on everything for too long, that I'll never come back. So, I just still, after all these years, [voice breaks] try to get through it.

BALLMAN: Some people are surprised to hear that Anne Anderson and most of the families affected by the leukemia cluster still live in Woburn. After the eerie experience of being a target of toxic contamination, they say there's really nowhere they could go to feel safe. That, perhaps, is the legacy of Woburn, and its message that something in the water you drink every day can kill you is frightening. So is the fact that Woburns can happen anywhere, any time. They're happening now, and sometimes the parallels are uncanny.

(Several voices speak at once, arguing)

BALLMAN: There's a cancer cluster today in the New Jersey shore town of Tom's River. More than 100 children are either dead or ill from leukemia and other cancers. City wells are contaminated with some of the same chemicals found in Woburn. And 2 large corporations are the suspected polluters. Linda Gillick, who's spearheading the family's efforts here, says learning about Woburn was a revelation and an inspiration.

GILLICK: They were the pioneers for what we are doing over here. Because they looked hard enough and they had someone that was really pushing to get to the bottom of this. It shows us that it's the beginning of what is going to be a long road, but yes, you can get answers if you persevere and keep pushing.

BALLMAN: And if, perhaps, you have an attorney who's been there before.

NEWS REPORTER: Parents say it's taking officials too long to explain why the cancer rate is higher here than in other parts of the state and the country. So they've hired Jan Schlichtmann, an environmental lawyer, to represent them.

BALLMAN: Linda Gillick is smart, savvy, and she knew all about A Civil Action, Jan Schlichtmann, and the mistakes he made in Woburn. But she hired him anyway.

GILLICK: I would rather have an attorney that has found out everything that can go wrong and learn from his mistakes, than have an attorney that everything seems to go right for, and goes in thinking that he knows it all, and has never really fallen into those pits.

BALLMAN: Linda Gillick hopes an older and wiser Jan Schlichtmann will help the Tom's River families avoid the wrenching legal traumas of Woburn. But if you strip away the lawyers, the scientists, and the environmental activists, there's a stronger thread running between Tom's River and Woburn. They're both stories of parents, usually mothers, trying to protect their children. Anne Anderson and her son Jimmy in Woburn. And in Tom's River, Linda Gillick is working against the clock for her son, Michael. Cancer is taking its toll on Michael. Tumors distort his face. Medication has left his body bloated and stunted. Michael is 19 years old but barely 4 feet tall.

MICHAEL: I can't say I'm 6 foot tall, blond and blue-eyed? (Laughter in the background)

BALLMAN: Well, Michael does have blue eyes. And in-between chemotherapy his hair is dirty blond. He's also determined. He recently graduated high school and wants to be a doctor or a counselor. Meantime, he helps his mom's group search for reasons why children in his home town are getting sick.

MICHAEL: Being diagnosed at 3 and a half months with neuroblastoma, and then finding out it could possibly be linked to the water or something environmental, it sort of makes you think, well, I really would like to know what caused this and put a stop to it.

BALLMAN: No one knows whether the chemicals found in Tom's River's water can cause neuroblastoma, in part because it's such a rare disease. But there are at least 20 cases here, along with leukemia and other cancers. If folks in Tom's River ever find out what's happening to their children, it will be due in part to the new environmental science, laws, and awareness sparked by what happened in Woburn. And they will owe a debt to the people who sacrificed to make those advances possible. To activists like Gretchen Latowsky, who proved the experts wrong and established the link between polluted water and cancer. To attorney Jan Schlichtmann, who risked everything to find some measure of justice for his clients. And to parents like Anne Anderson and children like her son Jimmy, a little boy who suffered through leukemia and all the unwanted attention it brought, and who may have understood, better than most, what was at stake.

BALLMAN: There was some scene where some television reporter was trying to get Jimmy to do something, and he said, to you, you know, "Mommy, why do I have to do these interviews? You know, can I just stop?" And you try to explain to him that, "Well, Jimmy, maybe people will learn something from this."

ANDERSON: Well, for the most part, he wasn't feeling well, and when people try to focus on him, it wasn't always easy. But he came to the realization, also, that a lot of things were happening because of him, and he voiced that. He said, "This is all because of me, isn't it, mom?" And I said, "Yeah, it is." And I guess that's his legacy. He made a difference when he was here.

BALLMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman.

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CURWOOD: A Civil Action has its world premier in Boston on January 6. Our story on Woburn was edited by Peter Thomson. Thanks to Joyce Hackel and Sandy Tolan. The mix engineer was Eileen Bolinsky, and we had production help from Elsa Heidorn, Jody Kirschner, and Jim Frey.

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, and Miriam Landman, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Julia Madeson. We had help this week from David Winickoff, Alexandra Davidson, Stephanie Pindyke, and Laura Colbert. Michael Aharon composed the theme. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; the Surdna Foundation; the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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