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Radioactive High

The case of the Beverly Hills High oil wells has taken another startling turn. The Weekly has learned that a family has come forward to allege that its children may have been harmed by a previously overlooked risk: radiation emitted by oil wells on campus. The Beverly Hills school district already faces litigation alleging that children and school workers have been harmed and even killed by toxic fumes from the wells.

The school district insists there is no proof of negative health effects, and that it has been performing safety tests, while also taking all necessary precautions.

The oil-well lawsuit spawned a media circus because of the district’s high-profile accusers — environmentalist Erin Brockovich and attorney Edwin Masry — as well as the Beverly Hills location and the issue’s resonance with oil-field problems that took center stage in the construction of the still-unfinished Belmont Learning Complex.

In Beverly Hills, the newest allegations come from Dr. Abraham Waks and his wife, Marrina. Waks is a professor of internal medicine at UCLA and staff physician at Cedars-Sinai. They have two daughters; the elder, now 23, graduated from Beverly Hills High.

According to the Wakses, their daughters have experienced a variety of medical ailments over the years such as persistent colds. Their 13-year-old has suffered convulsions. In January, urged on by a doctor, they checked for toxins and found uranium levels in their daughters’ systems to be almost three times the amount usually found in the body. They were puzzled as to the possible source of the exposure.

But then, one month later, Brockovich and Masry came out with allegations that the school’s oil wells emitted dangerously elevated levels of toxins, including benzene, toluene, n-hexane and methane. They claimed that these toxic fumes may have caused Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer in former teachers and students between about 1977 and 1996.

Brockovich’s presence immediately gave the case both credibility and attention. A popular movie, starring Julia Roberts, was made about her successful battle against Pacific Gas & Electric. Not even Belmont had a celebrity accuser.

Unlike at Belmont, the concern at Beverly Hills High is not fumes rising directly from a shallow oil field. The oil reserves here are deep underground. The fear in Beverly Hills is that the oil-extraction process and leaking wells are contaminating the air. There are 19 active and 25 abandoned wells on the school grounds.

The Wakses have added a new wrinkle. While they also focus on the oil wells, they suspect that Masry and Brockovich have got the mechanism of harm all wrong. They see radiation as the culprit. The Wakses argue that radioactive materials found naturally near oil wells or that are injected into oil wells as part of the extraction process might have done the damage. Iodine 131, for example, is regularly injected into oil wells. And the Wakses worry that greater-than-normal amounts of naturally occurring radon gas are reaching the surface as a result of oil drilling.

“If it is radioactive, it is a cause of concern,” said Dr. Waks. “Uranium, if it is in the air, can cause lung cancer. If it is swallowed, it usually can cause kidney damage. If you look at the basket of diagnoses that are presented at Beverly Hills High, the only common causative mechanism is radiation.”

Even if correct, however, this explanation would not account for the health problems of their younger daughter, who has not yet attended high school. In her case, the Wakses fear harmful exposure from other oil wells in the area.

Testing for radioactive materials should definitely be done, said Jim Drury, environmental specialist for Masry’s law firm. “I am sure radiation would be very high out there,” he said.

At the April 29 meeting, school-board officials assured the couple the matter would be looked into but have yet to schedule radiation testing. Last month, the school board and the city released a report by the environmental firm Camp, Dresser & McKee (CDM), concluding that air quality at the school is in the same normal range as other areas in the L.A. basin. Backing up this claim was the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which did its own testing over a two-month period.

“We will be following the scientists and pretty much taking their lead on this,” said school-board president Barry Brucker. “We are looking at all possibilities.”

Some experts contend that the radioactive material found at oil-well sites is too small to harm the public. Radon gas is usually toxic only in a confined space, like a house, said Ron Churchill, senior geologist with the Department of Conservation’s California Geological Survey. “You would very rarely encounter a situation out of doors where you would have a hazardous concentration of radon, because it dissipates in the air,” he said.

The families alleging harm face a challenging task of proving their case. It’s difficult to identify a cancer cluster and also hard to demonstrate what causes it.

Beverly Hills does have a high rate of one form of thyroid cancer, for example, but so does the rest of the Westside, said USC epidemiologist Wendy Cozen, who researches cancer clusters under state and federal contracts.

For their part, the Wakses debated whether they should send their 13-year-old daughter to summer school at Beverly Hills High. They did, in large part because the wells are currently shut down pending repairs after recent air-quality violations. “Some of these concerns can be put to rest with simple and inexpensive testing and procedures,” said Marrina Waks. “I hope that this will turn out to be a false alarm.”


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