Disney Pollutes

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes Magazine  ·  Cancer

How’s this for a grabber: Corporate polluter kills children. Only in Hollywood, friends, only in Hollywood.

Opening soon at a theater near you, courtesy of the Walt Disney Co.: another movie stereotyping business as dangerous to your health.

Disney’s Touchstone Pictures’ A Civil Action, starring John Travolta, is based on Jonathan Harr’s bestselling 1995 book of the same title. It tells of the years attorney Jan Schlichtmann and his small law firm spent "seeking justice" for eight Woburn, Mass. families who lost seven children and one adult to leukemia. After an expensive and inconclusive trial in 1986, the alleged villain, W.R. Grace & Co., settled for $8 million.

Nobody won this case. You can’t say the families won: After all, they lost their kids. After costs, the lawyers didn’t exactly clean up. Far more than losing $8 million, Grace suffered devastating publicity.

Jonathan Harr’s Bestselling 1995 Book

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 two deep pockets with plants in Woburn: Beatrice Foods, which owned a tannery, and Grace, which owned a shop that made packaging machinery. Both of these corporations dumped chemicals into the ground. The theory advanced by attorneys for the plaintiffs was that these wastes polluted water wells nearby, causing cancer in people who drank from them. Although the book mentions several possible contaminants, the movie cites just one, trichloroethylene (TCE), a common solvent for cleaning metals.

Yes, Grace employees were guilty of dumping TCE behind the shop it had built in Woburn in 1960 (and Grace is now spending a lot of money to clean up the site). But there is something really dangerous about the movie: It perpetuates the popular myth that any cancer cluster must have pollutants as its cause.

There are, moreover, two good reasons the Woburn leukemias, even if they were due to pollution, had nothing to do with Grace’s pollution. First, it is now widely believed that TCE is not a human carcinogen. Next, even if it were, Grace’s TCE could not have migrated to the wells in question in time to cause an effect.

Ground contamination has been a feature of Woburn since circa 1650, when a hide tanner set up shop and began treating animal skins with numerous chemicals. Soon the area became the tanning capital of America, and probably one of its earliest toxic waste sites, with large doses of arsenic, a deadly poison and human carcinogen.

In 1958, two years before Grace opened its machine shop, a city-hired engineering firm prepared a report saying that the aquifer into which the authorities wanted to sink two wells was thoroughly polluted and not fit for drinking. The city dug anyway.

Since the trial, Ohio State University geologist E. Scott Bair has studied the underground migration of chemicals near Woburn and concluded: 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 aimed at getting Beatrice back as a defendant, that the Beatrice tannery was a far more plausible source of the well contamination than the Grace machine shop. Another company that dumped solvents and other chemicals is located near Beatrice’s site, and much closer to the wells than Grace’s site but settled before Schlichtmann even got on the scene.

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 occupational exposures to TCE and found no statistically significant increases for any type of cancer.

Cancer clusters are scary, and naturally the victims want to point a finger at some evildoer. But the truth is that they are more likely to be due to chance than to pollution. 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. Disappointing for Pulitzer-seeking newspaper editors and for script-writers.

"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 script 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.

Read another version of this article, An Uncivil Attack on Business.