September 2007

Elizabeth Holden


Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School by Joy Horowitz

Parts Per Million by Joy Horowitz tells the story of the court case brought against several energy companies by alumni of Beverly Hills High School, and it doesn’t skimp on the details. The book, which is over four hundred pages and feels perhaps even longer, walks the reader through each step that led to the case’s existence. Though at times the volume of information seems almost tedious to get through, the details are necessary. Understanding the intricacies that brought over one thousand people to join the lawsuit against Venoco, Inc. is not a small matter. Horowitz has clearly immersed herself in the case in bringing it to the reader.

Parts Per Million surprised me in several ways. What surprised me initially was that I had never heard of this case. It seemed, to me, like the sort of thing that would have made big news. Another surprise was how current the information is -- the events Horowitz discusses in the afterword, for example, occurred in early 2007. Upon beginning the book, I was not aware that Erin Brockovich, the subject of the Academy Award-winning film starring Julia Roberts, played a major role in the events. Unfortunately, the biggest surprise for me was the events themselves. Beverly Hills High School has an oil well on its property, despite the fact that new schools in California cannot be built near oil wells and no other locations in Beverly Hills are permitted to have an oil well on their land. Despite many citations that Venoco, the owner of the oil well, has received, and despite complaints of bad smells, headaches, and oil spraying onto school grounds, the well has remained open. In return, the Beverly Hills school district collects $250,000 each year from Venoco.

Horowitz is careful to be impartial. She lays out facts in neat chronological order. The charges brought against Venoco, that their oil well had caused several hundred cases of cancer in school alumni, staff, and nearby residents, developed initially from a conversation between two women, both young cancer patients, who noticed an unusual amount of cancer among their alumni peers. One of them, Lori Moss, began to contact other alumni, gathering details on their health. When she met Erin Brockovich at a book signing, she explained her fear that many of the cancers may have been caused by Venoco’s well. This conversation slowly started the wheels into motion.

It’s a complicated saga that reads alternately like a legal thriller, science textbook, and very human drama. Horowitz makes it clear that neither side in the lawsuit is completely innocent -- many members of the Beverly Hills community see Brockovich and her side as ambulance chasers trying to money off of a made-up problem. However, the stories of families affected by cancer, and parents trying to learn the truth so they can protect their children, are undeniably heart-rending.

Horowitz never overtly states whether she believes Venoco is responsible for the incidences of cancer. She lets the facts she’s gathered speak for themselves. It’s impossible to put Parts Per Million down without feeling a little less confident that the government puts the health of its citizens above business interests, and a little more concerned over the quality of our air, land, and water. As many people say in the book, if it can happen in Beverly Hills, it can happen anywhere.

Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School by Joy Horowitz
ISBN: 0670037982
442 Pages