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Wednesday, December 30, 1998
By RANDY DIAMOND
TRENTON -- A new John Travolta film has New Jersey officials worried about panicked residents flooding local health officials with phone calls about catching cancer from drinking water contaminated with hazardous waste. Now Brick Township, a few miles away have uncovered a cluster of autistic children. Is this also a A Civic Action fall out?
So worried is James Blumenstock, acting senior assistant commissioner of the Department of Health and Senior Services, that he has sent a letter to the state's 120 municipal health officers warning them of a possible public outcry.
The recent letter warns that the film, "A Civil Action," could spark "considerable interest and inquiries" about hazardous waste, drinking water, cancer -- particularly leukemia and childhood cancer -- and related environmental health issues.
The movie recounts a true-life trial over industrial contamination of drinking water in Woburn, Mass., where a number of children in the Seventies had been diagnosed with leukemia. Travolta portrays a lawyer who represented families in Woburn, Jan Schlictmann, and the end of the film notes Schlictmann is now representing families of cancer victims in Toms River.
Ninety children have developed cancer in Toms River in the last two decades, and some residents have blamed chemical waste from two corporations that operated in the area.
Ciba-Geigy Corp. and Union Carbide deny any connection with the cancers, but Schlictmann is working with them and the region's water company to mediate a solution or settlement during a self-imposed 18-month lawsuit moratorium. Union Carbide has been blamed for chemical contamination that forced two drinking water wells to be shut down.
The letter by Blumenstock includes a fact sheet that states cancer is more common than many people realize, and downplays the link between toxic substances and cancer.
The letter says nothing about Toms River, and also states that the state Health Department avoids the use of the word "cluster" in relation to cancers because of the many possible meanings of the term.
That annoyed Schlictmann, who said state health officials are ignoring the obvious in Toms River. The state Health Department's own study found that 67 cases of cancer would have been expected, compared to the 90 that occurred.
"It doesn't help to be in denial," he said. "The problem doesn't go away because we say it doesn't exist."
He said the state needs to start using the word cluster when it comes to Tom River.
"There is a cluster of cancer there," he said. "We will never get to what happened until we acknowledge that there is a cluster. That is a fact of life."
About 1,000 angry Toms River residents jammed a school auditorium in 1996 to accuse state officials of withholding information about widespread childhood cancer deaths. The state is currently working with the federal government on a major epidemiologic study of the childhood cancers in the area.
State health officials insist the letter is only meant to to help local health officials with reaction from the movie.
"We work closely with local health officials," said Marilyn Riley, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Senior Services. "We wanted to let them know the movie was coming and they can anticipate an increase in phone calls. We wanted to help them answer questions."
One environmental organization, the Washington-based Environmental Media Services, has already started a national media campaign using the film to highlight contaminated drinking water and other environmental problems endangering various communities across the United States, including Toms River.
"My hope is that the film gives a message to people that we must be aware," said Schlictmann. "We don't want people waking up [and]reading in their newspaper as they did in Woburn and Toms River that the drinking water supply they thought was safe is not."
Another take on disease clusters: click this now.
Copyright © 1998 Bergen Record Corp.
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