SPH Study To Be Used As Evidence In Woburn Toxic Waste Damage Suit

A study by doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health will be introduced as key evidence in a local toxic waste damage suit which went to trial yesterday, the study's authors said.

Eight families in Woburn, Mass., are suing a New York-based industrial company, claiming that following the company's pollution of two town wells, six Woburn children were afflicted with leukemia.

Citing a 1982 study of Woburn residents' medical histories conducted by two SPH doctors, the families claim that through the negligence of the W. R. Grace Company, the water became contaminated with a known carcinogen, causing the residents to suffer "direct adverse effects and an increased risk of illness and disease."

In order to win their suit, which is being tried in Boston Federal District Court by Judge Walter Jay Skinner, the plaintiffs must demonstrate a direct correlation between the polluted wells and the high leukemia rate, parties to the case said.

The study conducted by Marvin Zelen, professor of statistical science, and Stephen W. Lagakos, associate professor of biostatistics, does just that, said the researchers.

Zelen, Lagakos and 250 volunteers interviewed 5000 Woburn families about their medical histories and living habits between 1977 and 1982, according to Zelen. The researchers volunteered their services when they learned of the Woburn residents' fears.

When the doctors analyzed their results, they "found that the children who had leukemia received twice as much [polluted] water as the children who didn't," Zelen said.

The study also discovered a direct connection between the polluted water and prenatal deaths and birth defects.

"Out of 107 pregnancies which took place during 1977 and 1979, when the polluted wells were running, seven babies died during birth. From 1980 through 1982, [after the wells had been shut down] out of 78 pregnancies, no children died during birth," Zelen said.

Although Zelen said that the study does not definitively prove a cause and-effect relationship between the poisoned wells and the increased rate of leukemia, he said that he believes it proves this relationship as directly as possible.

"Statistics are all the data one can get. You can't go around feeding people TCE [the chemical contaminant] and watching the results," he said.

Grace company officials declined to comment on the Harvard study, saying the judge imposed a restraining order in the case.

But Robert C. Niles, the director of environmental services at Grace, denied that there was any correlation between the poisoned wells and the leukemia. "We believe that no study has shown any identifiable correllation between the levels of TCE and childhood leukemia," he said.

In 1979, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering discovered that two of Woburn's eight wells had been contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), which is known to cause cancer and neurological disorders in laboratory animals.

The TCE concentration was five times the safety level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ground-water studies conducted by the EPA in 1982 traced the TCE to dumping at the Cryovac plant, which is owned by the W. R. Grace & Co. industrial conglomerate.

The wells were closed immediately, after the state discoved the TCE levels. However, the plaintiffs--headed by a mother of three, Anne Anderson--claim that the damage had already been done. Six children in one six-block area of Woburn had been diagnosed with childhood leukemia in the five years before 1979, said Dr. John Truman of Massachusetts General Hospital, who treated all six Woburn children for the disease.

Under normal conditions, only four children out of 100,000 develop childhood leukemia each year, Truman said.

Neither Zelen nor Lagakos has been called as a witness so far, but the study will be introduced as evidence sometime during the course of the trial, Niles said.