Letter from a survivor of Woborn, Massachusetts

   Subject:    A room with a view in Woburn, Massachusetts
Author: ravanesi <ravanesi@mediaone.net
   Date:       1/5/99 10:39 PM


   On the eve of the national premiere of the film A CIVIL ACTION, I would like to reflect on some of my personal memories of Woburn:

   I have more than a professional interest in the poisoning of the Woburn town wells with industrial solvents by several corporations including W R Grace and Beatrice Foods. My family drank, cooked & showered with the water from Wells G & H in Woburn, Massachusetts between 1971 and 1979.

   Let me describe briefly the panoramic view from my parents' home at 20 Henry Ave, east Woburn:

   The Kane house is also on Henry Ave. just several front yards away. Kevin Kane Jr., at 2 1/2 years old was diagnosed in the summer of 1973 with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Patrick Toomey and his family lived around the corner from the Kanes, just a short distance due north of my parents home.  Patrick Toomey died of acute lymphocytic leukemia in 1979, at the age of 11. Anne Anderson's home was less than a five minute walk to the east. Jimmy Anderson, her youngest child, died of acute lymphocytic leukemia in 1981, at the age of 12. The Zonas, Aufieros and the Gamaches were nestled around Anne Anderson's home in the Pine Street neighborhood. Leukemia seeped into those homes as well. The G & H contaminated wells were about 1/4  mile to the northeast of these homes.

   Time passed.

   Each summer the townspeople were told by city officials that there was a water shortage and that limits were placed upon its use. They were never told that solvents contaminated their drinking water between 1964-1979,  nor were they told that as the water level in the wells dropped the concentration of  toxins in the wells became even higher. In fact, just prior to sinking the new wells in 1964 the town "notables" were advised that the area selected for the placement of the wells had contamination problems. Nonetheless, they sank the wells and time passed.

   If I remember correctly, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection tried to shut the wells in the late 60s, but the town "notables" pressured the agency to back off, and they did.  In fact, Tom Mernin, the city engineer who lived on Wood St.(a few minutes away from my parents home) would often see my dad watering his garden, sometimes while water regulations were enforced. He usually blew the whistle on him when he got downtown. My dad would get fined each August by the city of Woburn for watering his sizable garden-- it might have been the most toxic garden in Massachusetts. In reality, he was getting fined not as he imagined, for growing safe food for his family, but for watering his greens with trichloroethylene (TCE)! Mernin was the local official who actually had the power to shut the wells down, but he thought Anne Anderson and the others were fruitcakes (I'm sure this sounds all too familiar). He was frequently quoted in the local paper that the residents of Woburn had nothing to fear, just turbidity problems, the water was safe, end of story! The town "notables"  told the community that the water was safe to drink.

   And, time passed.

   In a deadly irony, Tom Mernin also succumbed to leukemia prior to his 50th birthday.

   At the time I didn't realize that the Toomeys lived next door to Tom Mernin. The Toomey's story is one of the most tragic in east Woburn. As mentioned above Patrick died in '79 of leukemia from exposure to the drinking water. Soon after,Toomey's oldest son Michael was struck and killed by a car while on Wood Street. Neighbors said he was gathering up wild flowers for his mother. Hearts were broken all over the neighborhood. Years later I heard that all the Toomey children had many kinds of skin afflictions from the water.

   The quality of water became so obviously bad that my parents and others had decided to move onto bottled water--rather inconvenient in the mid-70s to locate. However, they continued to shower with it not realizing the risk from both inhalation and dermal exposure.

   Suffice it to say that my Woburn experience played a large part in shaping my interest to help in the struggle to protect the public's health.  My feeling is that we are suffering the all-embracing demands and short-sighted conveniences of post modern industrial society. The toxins are all around us and have been for many, many years. As Gary Cohen wrote recently ..."There are hundreds of Woburns in the United States,....  Woburn has become a familiar script".... The question now is, as a nation do we have the backbone to move out of the denial stage, and demand a healthy environment?

   Why did/are the chemical manufacturers and their insurance carriers spending tens of millions of dollars to weaken the tort system as they did in the Woburn case? Because they see this as a precedent. The captains of the chemical industry know they have for 50 years dumped hundred of millions of gallons of unlabeled cancer producing chemical waste into the land across the nation and that this waste is now seeping into the nation's water supply. (In 1981 the US EPA said that almost half of the water in America was unsafe to drink.) The insurance carriers for the chemical industry know they are at risk for the disease that is now developing because because of the indiscriminate dumping and want to flee from their risk, to flee from their moral and social responsibility. The manufacturers and their insurers would like to substitute a simple payment plan. So much for a diseased liver or lung, this much for cancer of the pancreas. That way they can unfold the cost of compensation neatly into the cost of production. A no-fault system is what they are after, they want to institutionalize occupational and environmental cancer & disease, make it a way of life (at least, we should not forget what the American Cancer Society said just one year ago, that one out of two American men will develop cancer in their lifetime; that one out of three American women will also develop cancer in their lifetime).

   As time passes, with inaction the statistics will change. In the not too distance future each one of us will surely develop cancer in our lifetime.    The time for civic action is now.

   Bill Ravanesi
   Boston Project Director
   Health Care Without Harm
   52 Washington Park
   Newton, MA 02460-1921

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