Mystery Science 90210

Published November 1, 2007

Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School
by Joy Horowitz
Viking Adult, 2007
442 pages, $25.95, ISBN 978-0670037988
available through

“The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School” is a provocative yet clear title. It may be true and it may not be, but the story is told by a very talented insider who in the end lets the reader decide, though she herself is certainly convinced.

The book should appeal to readers of fiction, for it once again proves that truth can be as thrilling as the escape one achieves with a good novel.

Horowitz is a wife and mother whose family lives in Santa Monica, not far from where she graduated high school in Beverly Hills. She is a journalist and writer with extraordinary talent who tells a comprehensive, thoughtful, and lucid tale about fascinating individuals, private corporations, and boring bureaucrats, in the style of a mystery novel that places the reader in the shoes of the narrator, seeing what she sees.

School in Oil Field

What is described in this story is more like occupational oil field worker exposure than general environmental exposure. But in this unusual case the workers are students and teachers at a high school that all but sits in the middle of the producing oil field.

Seven oil field derricks are just outside the windows of the school. Anecdotal evidence of health problems associated with the school mounted steadily as no fewer than 10 teachers in the English Department on the high school’s third floor contracted cancer over time.

The book has as many characters as War and Peace and would have benefited from a character chart like the one that accompanies many printings of Tolstoy’s novel. One gets to know a wonderful group of dedicated teachers, some with Ivy League credentials, training many students to take their places within the hallowed halls of America’s greatest universities.

A star of the book is our old friend and frequent fraudulent rabble rouser, Erin Brockovich, fresh from her fame writ large in the movie Erin Brockovich. In addition, it’s quite obvious the book and movie A Civil Action inspired Horowitz to write this book. I am sure she is hopeful of achieving equal success.

While she may well deserve it, I doubt that she will achieve it, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Big Monetary Return

The very active oil wells surrounding the school provided $75,000 in royalties to the community each month, in part paying for the high school’s amazing swimming pools and dance studios. Many of the families receiving those royalties had children attending the school.

To her credit, Horowitz admits the book is not about certainty but “is instead, intended to pose a range of questions. … [P]eople want to know what I really think; is there solid proof of a connection between environmental exposures and illness at Beverly Hills High School? The question could take decades to answer with any degree of certainty.”

She casts this statement in light of the fact that the initial dozen plaintiffs lost their case in court. Of course, that did not stop the publisher from titling the book in such a sensational manner.

Celebrity Hypocrisy

But you have to be impressed by a book that describes Erin Brockovich like this:

“At 42, Erin Brockovich seemed larger than life for reasons beyond her newfound celebrity status. Her physical stature–she is five feet nine and big boned–lends her an Amazonian presence, like a female warrior. And her trademark cleavage, a result of the almost comical breast implants that gave her the desired Barbie-esque proportions, imparts a sort of self-mocking air, like the bombshell from The Producers: if you’ve got it flaunt it.”

Horowitz goes on to denigrate Brockovich fittingly, explaining how her ambulance-chasing law firm gave her a $2.5 million bonus, after which she went out and bought a silver BMW, then traded it in for a black Hummer–not exactly standard issue for someone fighting for the environment. Eventually someone advised her to buy a Toyota Prius.

Case Thrown Out

The trial brought by the first 12 plaintiffs ended before it even began, when the judge dismissed all causes of action for lack of evidence. The plaintiffs’ experts could not provide evidence to support their theory that benzene from the oil wells had promoted cancers by suppressing the immune systems of already-vulnerable populations of students and faculty.

Benzene exposures are thought to require 20 to 60 parts per million over a number of years in order to create leukemia-type symptoms. Beverly Hills High students and faculty were exposed only to single-digit parts per billion.

Doubts Remain

While there is evidence the oil companies exceeded emissions permits, it remains extremely difficult to prove people are being made ill as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals. No one denies the oil field is creating an increased health risk. The question is how much.

Horowitz tells us, “The corporate polluters don’t deny they emit hazardous substances at the high school. They insist, however, that they are so tiny as to be inconsequential. In the eyes of the law, these chemical exposures are ‘trivial.'”

While Horowitz states her opinion clearly, she still lets the story tell itself. She is not overly strident or even too emotional, even though she actually lived the story, loved the people and the place, and now tells it as a journalist with a particular perspective.

Are her suspicions correct? Is the cancer cluster at Beverly Hills High School the result of the oil wells that enable them to have few budgetary worries? It may in fact be one more cancer cluster that is attributable to statistical randomness more than anything else. On the other hand, building a high school in an active oil field may not be such a good idea.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.