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Nuclink: Journal of Current Radiation and Public Health Issues

Volume 1, Number 2
October 23, 1998
Published by RPHP
PO Box 60 Unionville, NY 10988
Editor: W.L. McDonnell

The Film A Civil Action and The Tooth Fairy Project
By Jay M. Gould, Director
Radiation and Public Health Project

Jan Schlichtmann is the protagonist of the best selling environmental expose by Jonathan Harr called A Civil Action, soon to be released as a film starring John Travolta. The book and film describe Schlichtmann's herculean but failed struggle to win adequate compensation for the deaths of eight children from leukemia in Woburn, Mass, who lived near two chemical plants suspected of contaminating the local drinking water. The point of both the book and the film is that ultimately Schlichtmann failed to prove in a court of law that the children who died were affected by toxins released by the plants.

This is similar to the problems faced by trial lawyers in suits against asbestos and tobacco companies over the past several decades. Faced with the unlimited legal resources of large corporations, victims of environmental abuses are required by current legal practice to offer both epidemiological and clinical proof that the suspected toxins not only come from the defendants but can also be found in the bodies of the victims. This is precisely the problem which the Radiation and Public Health
Tooth Fairy Project addresses. The aim is to gather clinical proof--if it exists--that children affected by low-level radiation living near nuclear reactors have elevated levels of strontium-90 in their baby teeth.

Schlichtmann's valiant efforts over a nine year period ended in 1990, with a small settlement which left him bankrupt and with the feeling he had wasted 10 years of his life. But what is truly ironic is that both the book and film will ultimately move millions to appreciate the tragic implications of present day environmental abuses that far outweigh Schlichtmann's failure to win adequate compensation for eight Woburn families.

Fortunately, Schlichtmann permitted author Jonathan Harr to participate fully in the litigation strategy from the very first day, without putting any constraints on what Harr would eventually write.

As a result, A Civil Action turned out to be a courtroom page-turner which elevated Schlichtmann's quixotic struggle to the level of a great American tragedy.

For a period of six years, Schlichtmann evidently shared his every thought with Harr, including his despair that he had let his clients down. I can not make such a claim, but for the past two years Jan and I have both served on the Board of a new environmental foundation called STAR (Standing for the Truth About Radiation) which has helped finance the Tooth Fairy Project and I have heard him offer his retrospective reflections on the real significance of A Civil Action.

They happen to coincide with my own experience with a far greater environmental disaster---the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown of 1979. Dr. Ernest Sternglass and I were engaged as expert witnesses in a suit filed by 2500 plaintiffs against the TMI operator, the Metropolitan Edison Co., which stone-walled the suit for more than 9 years until last year when Judge Sylvia Rambo dismissed it out of hand without permitting it to go to a jury. During this period local newspapers carried stories about 300 plaintiffs who were offered settlements provided they would not reveal the amounts paid. The New York Times did not carry any account of the suit or the settlements until it was dismissed.

In chapter 5 of Deadly Deceit:Low-Level Radiation High Level Cover-Up, we offered our epidemiological proof that as many as one million premature deaths could be attributed to the TMI accident, along with significant increases in cancer in the 10 counties closest to the reactor. Despite the reluctance of many (but not all) public health officials to reveal the truth, we do have the finest system in the world of collecting vital statistics, and every significant environmental abuse resulting in excess deaths can be documented, if public pressure can be invoked to force publication of the relevant data.

By law, every state department of health must publish annual mortality rates at the county level, but the death certificates from which the information is obtained also carries the five digit Zip code of the deceased, so that aggregated mortality and cancer incidence rates for stricken neighborhoods can be released without violating privacy restrictions.

For example, public concern about the epidemic rise of breast cancer in Long Island forced the New York State Department of Health to publish age-adjusted cancer incidence rates for communities in the very large Suffolk county making up the eastern end of Long Island, as indicated in in the article in our first issue of Nuclink entitled "Why Breast Cancer Rates in the Hamptons Are So High." This evidence clearly implicates proximity of the East End to emissions from the troubled Millstone reactors on the other side of the Long Island Sound as contributing to significantly elevated cancers of the female breast and male prostate.

Publication of significantly elevated age-adjusted breast cancer incidence rates for five towns on the southern perimeter of the Brookhaven National Laboratory will also prove helpful in a billion dollar suit recently filed against the Brookhaven operators by residents of these towns, after admissions that private wells have been contaminated by BNL groundwater flows.

But no suit can be successful without supporting clinical evidence, and that is why we are now analyzing the strontium-90 levels in the baby teeth of children living near nuclear reactors, as described in great detail elsewhere on this web site.

Forty years ago dental associations in St Louis--worried about bomb test fallout and led by Dr. Barry Commoner--collected thousands of baby teeth and found a fifty-fold increase in Sr-90 levels in children born in during the above-ground bomb test years, which helped persuade President Kennedy to press for terminating them in 1963.

As a result of the mainstream media attention now enjoyed by Jan Schlichtmann, he is now besieged by requests to start litigation in hundreds of areas all over the nation. But we agree with him that litigation should be regarded as a last resort, and should be preceded by grass roots efforts to collect the necessary epidemiological and clinical evidence that will ultimately result in the kind of mainstream media attention and successful litigation without which we as a society will not survive.

Jan has expressed interest in investigating confirmed cancer clusters in both Long Island and in the Toms River township in New Jersey. Both populations suffer from exposure from the interaction of long-lived strontium-90 from nearby reactors with pesticides and other industrial chemical pollutants which Rachel Carson warned were "the sinister partners" in promoting carcinogenesis in our time.

The many grass roots organizations working to close down the 50 most dangerous reactor sites cited in The Enemy Within:The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors, should welcome the local release of the film version of A Civil Action. This film demonstrates the real power of even a small number of local activists. Their efforts to collect local baby teeth may eventually lead to both successful litigation in getting local compensation as well as government mandated plant closings as is now being undertaken by the new German government in coalition with the environmentalist Greens party.

The film will open in most cities in mid-December, and local groups should arrange to promote attendance at the film, as well as the distribution of baby teeth envelopes at the theater, as a way to build support for the Baby Teeth Study.

An Interview with Dr. Gould

Q. How did you and Jan Schlichtmann meet?
A. In the summer of 1996, I was part of a small group of Long Islanders concerned about our mounting breast cancer rates. We were organizing what is now the STAR foundation, to investigate the health effects of radioactive releases from the Brookhaven National Lab.

Our group included Bill Smith, of Fish Unlimited, who was particularly worried about the effect of BNL discharges into the Peconic Bay , which divides the East End of Long Island into the relatively affluent North and South Forks. In 1995 Bill and I had prepared an affidavit which forced BNL to temporarily stop such discharges.

Bill was the first of our group to read A Civil Action, and he phoned Schlichtmann and invited him to come to New York to see if we had sufficient evidence to support litigation against BNL. To our delight, Jan agreed to come.

Q. Did he agree to represent you?
A. Not really. He took great pains to tell us how naive he had been about the enormous odds he faced in taking on the Woburn case. But he was interested in how diverse our group was, which included such notables as Dr. Helen Caldicott and later the film actor Alec Baldwin.

Helen had just moved to East Hampton and was horrified to find that the East End of Long Island was endangered by radioactive discharges from both BNL and from the Millstone reactors only 25 miles to the north.

In June of 1996 she addressed an environmental group in Sag Harbor, where I was able to announce that I had received a small grant from the Methodist Church to investigate the cause of the Long Island breast cancer epidemic. That grant gave rise almost immediately to several additional grants, helping in the formation of STAR.

Q. Why was the Methodist Church interested?
A. When The Enemy Within was published in 1996, emissaries of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church visited me to describe the medical missionary work they were doing in the former Soviet Union. They had found that the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazahkistan, operating since 1949, had registered enormous increases in cancer. They asked me if there were any such areas in the US and were startled to learn that official age-adjusted cancer mortality rates in the files of the National Cancer Institute showed that since 1950, when BNL began operating, Suffolk county had registered the nation's greatest increases for both breast and prostate cancer, followed closely by counties near Hanford and Oak Ridge.

I went on to suggest the need for clinical measures of strontium-90 levels in humans in these counties, which led the Methodist Secretary, Dr. Randolph Nugent, to offer us an exploratory financial grant. Since then with the help of David Friedson, the President of STAR, we have raised additional seed money for the RPHP Tooth Fairy Project.

Q. Who else offered you support?
A. In the past we have been helped by the Deer Creek Fund and the CS Fund, but more recently several family foundations like the Samuel Rubin Foundation and the Jewish Communal Fund have given us small grants. Very recently the Louis and Harold Price Foundation gave us a grant
...to help in your research and baby teeth study, in determining whether nuclear weapons fallout and power reactors are affecting and contributing to America's cancer epidemic, thereby impacting the health and mortality of newborn children and future generations.

Q. That speaks for itself.
A. Yes, in fact that statement encouraged us to apply to the large foundations for the additional funds needed to collect and analyze 6000 U.S. baby teeth, which is the number collected since 1992 by our colleagues in the German branch of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

It is a sad fact that official studies of strontium-90 levels in American baby teeth--which enabled President Kennedy to terminate above-ground bomb tests in 1963--ceased in 1969. About two dozen nations, other than the US, are continuing to measure Sr-90 in baby teeth.

Q. How does your effort to collect and analyze strontium-90 levels in American baby teeth compare with the German study?
A. With only 400 teeth collected to date, we are obviously in a very early stage when compared with the 6000 teeth collected since 1992 by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, or the 60,000 teeth collected in St. Louis from 1958 to 1961, which led to the passage of the Partial Test Ban in 1963. But we have found that the effort to collect teeth in itself is a very effective organizing tool.

Q. Is there anything you would like to leave our readers with, as we end this interview?
A. Yes. We cannot all show the dogged persistence and sustained courage of Jan Schlichtmann, but there is something that each of us can do to help future Jan Schlichtmanns have solid clinical evidence if radioactivity is getting into our bodies. Please help in collecting teeth.