Massachusetts: Families face 'long journey' to prove cancer link

HAMILTON — When attorney Jan Schlichtmann sued corporate polluters in Woburn, Mass., 20 years ago, he told his clients they needed to be patient if they hoped to prove that their children were poisoned by contaminated water.
By the time the case was settled, Schlichtmann had spent more than 10 years and several million dollars on the lawsuit, which pitted eight Woburn families against three corporations that had allegedly poisoned the community’s water supply, causing leukemia in several residents.
Reached Friday at his Massachusetts home, the attorney — who became famous when he was profiled in the book “A Civil Action” and a movie of the same name — had similar advice for Hamilton residents seeking to prove that hundreds of cases of cancer in their neighborhood are related to contamination from the former Mercer Rubber factory.
“It’s a long journey,” the attorney said. “Proving (a cancer cluster) is a long process that requires a tremendous amount of energy and commitment by the community.”
Though they have not spoken to Schlichtmann, who was also instrumental in proving that several cases of childhood cancer in Toms River were related to contaminated water, residents of the neighborhoods around the former Mercer Rubber site already have begun to follow the lead of the Woburn and Toms River families.
Last week, about a dozen neighbors of the former plant, which operated on Mercer Street in Hamilton Square for 130 years, took matters into their own hands and began a door-to-door survey to determine how many of their neighbors have been diagnosed with cancer.
The grassroots survey was sparked by a recent report by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry and state health officials that looked at cancer cases in about a one-mile radius around the plant diagnosed between 1979 until 2002.
The study concluded that though rates of some forms of cancer were elevated, the 1,141 total cases in the area were in line with state averages and not elevated as residents had long suspected.
The study led officials to believe that cancer in the area was likely not a result of contamination from Mercer Rubber as neighbors had feared, despite reports from former employees that chemical waste from the plant was dumped on a nearby property that later became Sayen Gardens.
The plant, which closed in 1993, was known to use benzene, a known cause of leukemia, as well as trichloroethylene, the same contaminant in the Woburn wells.
The report left the residents unconvinced, and many, including Liz Chiorello, who survived breast cancer, are still searching for answers.
“There are still a lot of questions,” she said. “We know something is wrong here, but we don’t know what.”
Chiorello and others met recently with representatives of the state health department, who told them they were willing to continue studying the area. Three years of new data from the state cancer registry are available and the officials said they would add those to the initial study, which took into account cancer cases from 1979 to 2001.
And while health officials confirmed Friday they are confident in the findings of the initial report, they have agreed to narrow the scope of the study to the streets closest to the former rubber factory at the request of residents, who felt the initial report took in too broad of an area.
For the first time since she first took notice of what she thought was an inordinate number of cancer cases in her neighborhood, Chiorello said she feels like answers might be on the horizon.
“I really feel comfortable that they truly are interested,” Chiorello said. “Nobody would come out and say, ‘Yes, there is a problem,’ but this is the first time I felt that, yes, they are truly committed to getting us more information. I truly felt they were all interested and all willing to work together to help us.”
After the initial study was released, several residents questioned the methods used by state and federal health officials and many cited friends and neighbors who had moved from the area before being diagnosed with cancer.
How could citizens be sure that the study was accurate, they asked, when hundreds of people had moved from the area and many more were diagnosed long before 1979, when the state’s cancer registry was formed?
Officials answered that though the study was constrained by the weaknesses pointed out by Chiorello and her neighbors, they believed it was accurate.
Unfortunately, Schlichtmann said, the Hamilton residents’ concerns are all too familiar. In both Woburn and Toms River, neighbors were initially told the cases of cancer were not related to pollution or that a relationship could not be proved. Only through grit and determination, he said, did they finally get people to take notice, but in each case, answers took years to find.
“To ignore (the possible cancer cluster) is definitely an inclination for government officials who have a lot to do and little resources,” he said. “They need to be convinced.”
And there are other factors, the attorney said, that enter into the equation.
“More times than we would like to admit it’s a political decision and not a scientific one to continue studying a site,” Schlichtmann said. “There is pressure from industry and business and real estate interests. All of that was experienced by the families in Woburn and Toms River.”
But Chiorello and her neighbors seem to be on the right track, Schlichtmann said. Key to continuing the fight is partnering with state and local officials and presenting their case for further study.
“If they form relationships with federal, state and local officials that are based on trust and confidence and they make reasonable requests, they hopefully will have the opportunity to get their questions answered in a reasonable way, but it ain’t easy,” he said.
Some residents are pragmatic about the cause. Lisa Glodowski, whose daughter Jessica was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 1998 at the age of 2, said residents may never know what caused the cancers.
“Right now, we don’t know where it came from,” Glodowski said. “We don’t really even have a starting point yet. I hope we do find something if there is something out there. I think people are anxious to go forward and see where this takes us.”
Contact Darryl Isherwood at or (609) 989-5708.

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