Parts per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School

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A journalist's unsettling and timely investigation into the ties between Beverly Hills, its oil wells, and a local cancer cluster

Beverly Hills High School is the crown jewel of a storied community that has long symbolized wealth and privilege. No one, including the author (class of 1971), thought twice about the oil pumps behind the school's athletic fields; the derricks were just a part of the landscape, bringing in a sizable amount of royalty money to the community. But in ...

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The Poisoning of an American High School

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Overview

A journalist's unsettling and timely investigation into the ties between Beverly Hills, its oil wells, and a local cancer cluster

Beverly Hills High School is the crown jewel of a storied community that has long symbolized wealth and privilege. No one, including the author (class of 1971), thought twice about the oil pumps behind the school's athletic fields; the derricks were just a part of the landscape, bringing in a sizable amount of royalty money to the community. But in 2003, after a group of young graduates developed cancer and the loudmouthed and sensationalistic Erin Brockovich caused a stir claiming the drilling was the cause, Beverly Hills was dragged into a landmark tort case that has split the town in two and will cause a media stir when it goes to trial later this year.

In Parts per Million, Joy Horowitz tells the story behind the headlines, interviewing cancer specialists, lawyers, epidemiologists, city officials, residents, and Brockovich herself. She crafts a riveting picture of PTA moms fighting for the truth, parents in denial, cancer-ridden youth, a school board terrified of having failed in its obligation to keep kids safe, and the complex game of toxic tort litigation that stands to strike a huge financial blow to the powerful oil companies and the iconic community. A Civil Action meets An Inconvenient Truth, Parts per Million couches medical and scientific inquiry in a compelling legal drama. Horowitz examines our tangled relationship with oil, money, and the environment, and bravely questions how many more will have to die before government regulators put economics aside and heed the warnings of science.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Commingling fame and wealth, Beverly Hills embodies the modern version of the American dream, but journalist Horowitz (Tessie and Pearlie)argues that it's also a modern American nightmare. Her tale of corporate neglect, petty politics, endless legal wrangling and our love-hate relationship with petroleum centers on Beverly Hills High School and its illustrious alumni, oil derricks and alarming number of cancer victims. Initially skeptical of the idea that the profitable oil pumps adjacent to the school have led to an array of horrible diseases among its graduates, especially with celebrity advocate Erin Brockovich poking around the case, Horowitz quickly found herself pulled into a story that raises fundamental questions about how we assess risk and balance our desire for justice with scientific and legal ambiguities about establishing causes and assigning blame. Horowitz is better at raising such questions than answering them, largely because in her case the truth does not come out, the public and even people involved in the litigation begin to lose interest, and no lawsuits have come to trial, let alone been resolved. That doesn't make for very satisfying reading, but it's faithful to a time in which, as Horowitz says, even our will to do right by our communities has been contaminated by competing desires. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Bhopal, Anniston, the Love Canal: Environmental catastrophe usually befalls the poor and uninfluential. Freelance writer Horowitz (Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter's Story, 1996) documents a case that struck in an elite neighborhood-and, as usual, too little was done about it. A 1971 graduate, Horowitz returns to Beverly Hills High School-seen in dozens of films, including It's a Wonderful Life-to puzzle out a curious phenomenon: A disproportionate number of her classmates had fallen ill with or died of various cancers. And not just students: In the English department alone, one faculty member remarks, "There was like a death a year." Come the winter of 2003, the incidence had become so high, well beyond the normal distribution of a disease that for the most part is "caused by environmental factors, not genetic ones," that none other than Erin Brockovich had taken on the Beverly Hills High "poisonings" as case and cause. It happens, writes Horowitz, that for half a century the school grounds had doubled as an oilfield, with the city earning a sizable royalty for granting the privilege to a private energy developer; and workers at oil refineries and related facilities are notably susceptible to such illnesses. In these pages, Horowitz writes, bureaucrats dismissed technical questions, such as the on-site treatment of extracted oil with ammonia, radioactive iodine and other toxic elements, early on; one told her that releasing any information would endanger the public in the post-9/11 context, while a state engineer told a worried mother, "Lady, if you don't feel comfortable, you should take your children elsewhere." Horowitz follows the case into court, where a judge ruled, "counter tothe available science," in favor of the oil company, prompting the author to decry, with good cause, the state of the current judiciary and regulatory mechanisms. A readable companion to Dennis Love's My City Was Gone: The Poisoning of a Small American Town (2006). Agent: Molly Friedrich/Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670037988
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/19/2007
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.41 (d)

Meet the Author

Joy Horowitz is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, and Time, among other publications. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Yale Law School.

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