Learning the Lesson


AFTER THE Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last fall rated a toxic waste dump in Woburn, Mass. the fourth worst such site in the country, everyone knew the problem was bad. But no one knew just how bad until a team of researchers from the School of Public Health last week released the results of a study showing a positive correlation between the chemical contamination and the unusually high rate of childhood leukemia in the town. And that link will likely make all the difference for the town's residents who seek clean-up of the site and reparations for the health damages.

When concerned residents asked the state to examine the problem in 1981, the only conclusion that both the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control could draw was that there was, indeed, an inordinate number of cases of childhood leukemia and birth defects in Woburn. They could not go so far as to point fingers because this would require further study for which, they said, they had neither the funds nor the manpower.

Now that the SPH team has stepped in and paved the way for Woburn, the residents of the town will have an easier time claiming reparations and perhaps forcing a clean-up of the area. Although, since it used statistics, the study was not able to prove definitive cause and effect, it did establish that the more exposure residents had to water from two contaminated wells, the higher their risks of leukemia and other diseases. Woburn's childhood leukemia rate is two and a half times the national average. A group of six families has already made plans for a lawsuit against the companies involved.

But what about other towns in other states? The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group recently estimated that there are over 100 toxic waste sites in Massachusetts alone; there are thousands in the country Citizens elsewhere, presumably, will not be so fortunate as to have a private research team willing to take up their cause. And as one SPH professor observed, state agencies simply have not got the funds to conduct in-depth studies of every affected community. The SPH researchers estimated that had their study been commissioned, the cost would have been $500,000 to $750,000. At this rate, a state agency could afford at most one such study each year.

Toxic waste is a national problem, with which individual states are simply not equipped to deal. But what has the federal government done about clean-up? The $1.6 billion Superfund program Congress passed four years ago was designed to fund clean-up of sites with revenue from a tax on the chemical companies themselves. This "revolving fund," however, never completely recovered the money it spent on costly legal suits to enforce liability.

The EPA's recent track record on the toxic waste issue has been less than commendable; one of erstwhile administrator Anne Burford's last moves, publishing a list ranking the country's worst dump sites, was dismissed by most as mere grandstanding. William Ruckelshaus, while promising to ask for more money for Superfund, has done little of substance.

Last week several legislators, including Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.), introduced several pieces of more vigorous legislation to combat toxic waste. The proposals are a welcome sign--the federal government and the EPA in particular have been dragging their feet for too long on a problem that has immeasurable effects on the health of the entire country.

The town of Woburn was fortunate to have SPH experts to corroborate their fears. The team provided a valuable precedent for such volunteer studies, and they have performed a commendable service both to Woburn and to the general public. But they are only one of countless other industrial towns in the country that may be suffering from as yet unproven effects from hazardous waste disposal. It is too early to tell how much of an impact the new legislation, if passed, will have on the problem. But it is a step in the right direction, and a lead that we can only hope the EPA and the Administration will follow.