Woburn: Is It Something in the Water?

In the smallish town of Woburn, Massachusetts, three men have gone on trial for murder in the past few weeks.
Woburn, about 10 miles northeast of Boston and with a population of 37,000, sees its share of crimes, but these three brutal and rather bizarre murders in the same area – sent to trial within weeks of each other – bring to mind the urban-myth question: is it something in the water?

The accused are Neil Entwistle, convicted of killing his wife and daughter; James Brescia, who hired a hit man to kill his estranged wife’s lover; and James Keown, who is accused of killing his wife by adding antifreeze to her Gatorade. Keown was convicted July 2.

The contaminated water issue first surfaced in the 1970’s, when the citizens of Woburn began to notice a rise in the incidence of childhood leukemia, cancer and other illnesses. Investigation led to the discovery of high levels of volatile organic compounds in the city’s wells.

In 1982, following the illness and deaths of a number of the city’s children, residents filed a civil lawsuit against two local businesses, W.R. Grace and Company, and Beatrice Foods, a firm largely sold off to Con Agra Foods by 1990.

The two companies were charged with contaminating Woburn’s groundwater with trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene, and other industrial solvents. A subsequent trial acquitted Beatrice, and Grace ended up paying only $6.6 million. Jonathon Harr’s book, A Civil Action – later made into a movie – details the controversial rulings by Judge Walter Jay Skinner which resulted in the jury’s inability to make a valid decision.

That same year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated Woburn a Superfund Site. This site, known as Wells G&H, covers approximately 330 acres and includes both the aquifer and land associated with Woburn’s former municipal drinking water system, which is largely composed of wells.

In 1991, the EPA settled with potentially responsible parties, including Beatrice, W.R. Grace, Unifirst Corporation, Wildwood Conservation Trust, and New England Plastics. All shared in the cost of Wells G&H cleanup, though Grace, Unifirst and New England Plastics continue to deny culpability. Beatrice and the Wildwood Conservation Trust are defunct.

A legal analyst agrees that the area – and the state – have high rates of domestic violence. Massachusetts had 55 domestic violence deaths in 2007, up from 19 in 2005, prompting Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to call the upswing a "public health emergency."

The U.S. Department of Justice, which reports on domestic violence deaths, or DVDs, compared statistics in eight major cities between 1985 and 1994.

The data is seriously outdated, but shows that Detroit – a city so polluted the CDC has pulled its report – had the highest percentage of DVDs in relation to homicides, though not the highest percentage where the victim-offender relationship (VOR) was clearly identified. That honor fell to Tampa, with Miami a close second. Atlanta, with a 50-percent VOR, had 11.7 deaths, and New Orleans, with a 48-percent VOR, had an average of 10.7 deaths, putting these two cities in the category of the worst cities to live in – or have a relationship in – if you are female.

If chemical contamination – of water or soil – is the source of murderous behavior, a researcher might conclude that Massachusetts is highly toxic. At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, researchers are currently tracking mercury pollution in saltmarsh sparrows. Mercury levels along this Massachusetts stretch of the New England coast are reportedly among the highest in the nation.

Mercury is a known neurotoxin, and may be the underlying cause in both autism and Alzheimer’s. Males are more vulnerable to mercury because testosterone enhances its neurotoxicity. Dr. William J. Walsh, Ph.D., a 20-year veteran/volunteer who treats behaviors among prison inmates, believes mercury causes mental and behavioral disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning problems, autism, depression, and schizophrenia. So far, however, lead is the only chemical pollutant that has been definitively linked to violence.

So is it something in the water? And, if it were, would the government tell us? Repeated exposure to trichloroethylene (and perchloroethylene) can cause memory loss, headache, dizziness, intolerance of alcohol, depression, insomnia, mood perturbation, sexual difficulties and weakness in the arms and legs. Orally administered to laboratory animals for six weeks, trichloroethylene instigated "selective complex 1 mitochondrial impairment in the midbrain with concomitant striatonigral fiber degeneration and loss of dopamine neurons."

Translated, this means trichloroethylene affects the frontal area of the brain where dopamine expression takes place. Dopamine is critical to the way the brain controls physical movement. Dopamine is also a chemical mood trigger, inducing not only "feel-good" responses but instigating primal drives, as in food and sex. Dopamine also drives the reward response in aggressive behavior, which in essence separates healthy aggression from mindless violence.

Concentrations of trichloroethylene in Woburn’s water were established at 260 parts per billion in the 1990s. The EPA’s maximum contaminant level is five parts per billion. In effect, Woburn’s level was more than 50 times greater than the level established as safe!

Even so, it’s hard to point the finger exclusively at Woburn. Over the last 50 years, 70,000 to 100,000 different chemicals have been introduced into the world’s markets, with about 1,500 new ones added each year. Unfortunately, the EPA and other regulatory agencies are only beginning to conduct in-depth studies to calculate their effects on human health and the environment. If you doubt this, check out the Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI, on any widely used toxic chemical and identify the most recent date definitive studies were undertaken.

This is not necessarily EPA negligence, but the result of budget cuts even in the face of an increasing workload – a situation exacerbated by government interference with those few studies that do make it past the budget gate, according to a recent study and report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS.

"…(EPA) researchers are generally continuing to do their work, but their scientific findings are tossed aside when it comes time to write regulations," said Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program, who went on to state that the study’s findings reveal "an agency in crisis."

More like a nation in crisis, with the toxic potential of so many new chemicals – and their effects on behavior – largely unknown. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, violent crime, which declined between 2002 and 2004 as a result of huge expenditures and massive effort, rose again in 2007, and a 2007 Bush administration pledge to devote another $50 million to gangs and guns may do little to turn the toxic tide as the chemically befuddled turn their violent tendencies first on loved ones and then on the population at large.

Instead of throwing money at the agencies charged with preventing crime, we, as a nation, might be better off telling cleanup agencies like the EPA to clean up their act. We could also set up a citizen-sponsored TRI and force chemical companies to quit poisoning us. Short of that, Woburn is less a bizarre little episode and more a finger pointing down the road we will inevitably be forced to travel if we don’t take charge of our nation’s overwhelming chemical burden.

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