The poisoning of Beverly Hills High

Joy Horowitz’s “Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School” (Viking) is a dense 350-page book detailing a four-year fight between 1,000 litigants who claimed oil wells at the school caused diseases, such as cancer, and defendants — including the oil companies, the city of Beverly Hills and school officials — who said there had been no harmful effects from the (profitable) derricks.

Could it be true that leakage from the derricks and power plant caused incidences of cancer up to three times more than normal, as some experts claim?

Or were people like Erin Brockovich, the celebrity environmental paralegal who took on the case, “ambulance chasers” and “fear-mongerers” relying on junk science, as defendants like Beverly Hills city officials and school administrators said?

As the case is being appealed — with a partial settlement offer of $10
million from one oil company — Horowitz, who will receive the Environmental Hero of 2008 award from the Environmental Relief Center on Jan. 31, believes the wells continue to endanger.

The author of “Tessie and Pearlie: A Granddaughter’s Story,” and the recipient, with her siblings, of the settlement of a case against tobacco companies fought on behalf of her late father, Horowitz spoke to The Jewish Journal about the complicated nuances of the lawsuit, why she thinks her message in “Parts Per Million” has been silenced, how the Jewish community sits at the center of the case and to what lengths people will go to protect their lifestyle.

Jewish Journal: How did you become involved in this story?
Joy Horowitz: I graduated in 1971 and went to my 30th reunion — it was a year late, in the summer of 2002. A lot of my classmates, whom I was looking forward to seeing, had died. They’d had cancer — some of them had multiple cancers. When you’re a person in your 40s, that’s too young. Then the following February of 2003, that’s when Erin Brockovich descended on Beverly Hills and started making these allegations between cancer and young graduates. I was very skeptical, but the more I looked into it, the more I found that what was being said publicly was not the reality of what was going on.

Parts Per MillionJJ: What was going on?
JH: You’ve got these two industrial sites [the oil derricks and the Sempra power plant], operating at a high school in Beverly Hills.
Over time, there was a major litigation filed, and the number of people with cancer mushroomed. What started off as about 28 graduates with cancer mushroomed into 1,000 plaintiffs, some 400 with cancer. The community said these emissions are inconsequential to the children’s health. There are epidemiological studies that suggest otherwise.

JJ: What kind of evidence was there linking disease to the oil wells and power plants?
JH: It depends who you talk to. As far as Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) goes, there were three epidemiological studies:
1) The Los Angeles cancer registry found threefold excess of thyroid cancer among young men living adjacent to Beverly Hills High School. But the author of that study said that her findings lacked statistical significance, so it wasn’t really an issue. (Her husband was working as a consultant for one of the defendants.)
2) Richard Clapp’s study, out of Boston University’s School for Public Health Research, found excess rates of cancer among graduates of BHHS from 1990-2000 — threefold for Hodgkin’s disease, twice the expected amount of thyroid cancer and elevated rates of testicular cancer — but he was working for the plaintiff’s law firm, so his study was ruled inadmissible by the judge, because it hadn’t been peer-reviewed and published.
3) There was a study that was never made public by Philip Cole, a retired epidemiologist who did a lot of work for industry at the University of Alabama. The school district cited Dr. Cole’s study as evidence that there wasn’t a higher rate of cancer among students at Beverly Hills High School, but the study was never made public, so I don’t know what the study is.

JJ: In November 2006, the judge summarily dismissed the first 12 plaintiff’s cases. In October 2007, Frontier Oil offered a $10 million settlement to plaintiffs. Why do you think that happened?
JH: For a couple of reasons. In order to get to trial relatively quickly — it still took three years — they had both the defense and plaintiffs agree to select six cancers. The strongest cases never got to court.
The other thing is the defendants, which included Sempra and Chevron, Frontier Oil and Venoco, continued to be willing to spend an unbelievable amount of money to defend these cases.

JJ: What do you think should be done now?
JH: Nobody has ever done a cohort study comparing the population at [this] high school to another high school. That would be a really good first step.

JJ: Why didn’t they do that?
JH: They didn’t want to invest in that. Had they invested in that, as opposed to all this money they spent on the lawsuit, that might have been an interesting step, but instead, they took great pains to keep information from getting public.
By and large, public health officials hate doing cluster investigations, because they’re almost impossible to determine, to establish a link between environmental factors and clusters. And statistically, it could just be by chance that there are all these extra cancers in this particular area. Historically, there have been very few proven. Most of the clusters that are proven are among occupational workers exposed to very high levels of carcinogens. The classic one is asbestos exposure, and mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung), which my dad got from smoking Kents with a filter. My dad died in 1996.
JJ: Was that part of the motivation for your book?

Do Day School Health Programs Make the Grade?

Twenty parents from the Emek Hebrew Academy in Valley Village have come on a chilly winter evening to hear Dr. Francine Kaufman, a national expert on diabetes and childhood obesity, talk about promoting children’s health. Although the school has 455 families, Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, the school’s dean, is not discouraged by the modest turnout.

“We have to change the culture…. It’s a challenge,” he said.

Strajcher (pronounced Striker) tells the group he’s been overweight since childhood.

“When I was growing up, no doctor or teacher ever mentioned my weight,” he said. “I am reaping the result of all those years.”

He is not alone. In fact, Strajcher’s students are even more likely to struggle with weight issues. According to the Institute of Medicine, an agency under the National Academy of Sciences, more than 9 million U.S. children above the age of 6 are considered overweight or obese. The litany of health consequences associated with obesity — diabetes, cancer and heart disease, to name a few — might result in today’s children becoming the first generation in American history with a lower life expectancy than their parents. For children born in 2000, their lifetime risk of developing diabetes exceeds 30 percent.

Many can name factors contributing to these alarming trends: An increase in sedentary activities, such as television and computers; greater demand for convenience foods; advertisements targeting kids with high-fat foods, and an environment that discourage walking and physical activity. Given the breadth of the problem, solutions require action on all levels of society — from government and business to schools and families. Jewish day schools, which may not see their role in the equation, have been slow to address these concerns.

But some have begun to take action.

Let’s Get Physical

At Jewish day schools, the demands of a dual curriculum coupled with limited outdoor space can cause physical education to take a back seat. This is decidedly not the case at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School. When Head of School Sheva Locke joined the Encino school four years ago, one of her first priorities was instituting an athletic program. The school now employs an athletic director and two full-time coaches who supervise physical education classes and activities at recess and lunch.

The athletic department also runs an extensive after-school team sports program. Kindergarteners through third-graders can join in a Junior Sports Club, while fourth- through sixth-graders can participate in competitive sports, including basketball, soccer, football and volleyball — and 98 percent of them do. The teams compete in the San Fernando Valley Private School League. VBS provides transportation to off-site games to make participation easier on parents and children.

“The focus was on getting as many children as possible to participate and to play,” Locke said. “The problem solving and goal setting that goes along with having a physical fitness program is equally as important.”

During the school day itself, VBS provides physical education twice a week, a figure fairly standard in the day school world. For students who don’t participate in after-school physical activities, that amount is woefully inadequate, according to physician Fran Kaufman, professor of pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.”

“Kids should be active for 60 minutes each day,” she said.

The state of California requires that children in first through sixth grade have a minimum of 200 minutes of physical education time per 10 days of school, which averages 20 minutes per day. In seventh through 12th grade, the time requirement doubles. (According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 51 percent of school districts reviewed failed to meet the state’s minimum requirement for physical education time.)

Those numbers fall far short of the 60 minutes daily recommended by Kaufman and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And as Emek’s Strajcher points out, not all of that time involves being active.

“Even when kids are supposedly playing, how much of that time is spent waiting for a turn?” he asks.

At Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, instructor Alan Rosen has designed a unique program where lessons on character and values are integrated into physical education. On the play area used by the elementary school students, circles painted on the blacktop list such values as responsibility, humility, effort and cooperation. The words are incorporated into songs and games, and are referred to in the course of regular physical activities.

“If it’s important, you find the time,” said Maimonides’ principal, Rabbi Karmi Gross. “Physical activity doesn’t have to be divorced from what else is being done.”

By the Book

Inside the classroom, the content and amount of wellness-related curriculum varies from school to school. An informal survey taken by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles on nutrition education garnered responses from only 10 schools out of more than 30. Of those, half had no “formal” nutrition curriculum, and relied primarily on teacher-generated materials.

Because health is not a subject for which the state requires standardized testing, public school districts vary in the degree of emphasis they give the topic. Los Angeles Unified School District specifies knowledge and abilities that students are expected to master in grades four, seven, and high school.

In both public and private schools, a dedicated health class is generally taught in middle school. Seventh graders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge take a health and life sciences class that focuses on the physiology and biology of the human body. An eighth-grade nutrition unit includes a screening of the school version of “Super Size Me,” in which the filmmaker traced his odyssey eating McDonald’s fare exclusively three times a day for one month, and how his body suffered as a result.

“We talk about individual choices and about society, and we discuss where responsibility lies,” said science teacher Liz Wenger. “We look at how society is changing the way we eat, such as not eating at home as much, and eating larger quantities and higher fat foods.”

The students calculate their own caloric intake and use a calorimeter to measure the amount of food energy in various foods. They also build pumps to replicate the heart and use stoppers to illustrate cholesterol build-up.

VBS employs a full-time nurse whose duties include teaching health-related lessons to all grade levels. At Milken Community High School, ninth graders take a class, designed with input from a health educator and a rabbi, which explores physical, social and emotional health as well as sexuality and tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse.

Ess, Ess Mein Kind

Learning about nutrition doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Most of the schools interviewed expressed concerns about the food they provided to students, not only through formal meal programs, but also informal means such as class parties or incentives.

Eating can be an emotionally charged issue given its integral role in Jewish practice. The ubiquity of food is illustrated in the oft-repeated definition of Jewish holidays:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

“Every time we celebrate, we celebrate with food — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Emek’s Strajcher. The question is what kind of food and how much. He said that traditionally, when students began to learn the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) in school, the rebbe would put a drop of honey on each letter so that the children would associate learning with sweetness. Even in the synagogue itself, congregants throw candy for auf-rufs (engagements), bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.

Some parents are troubled by the amount of sugary snacks given to their children.

Kaufman noted that packaged kosher snacks can be some of the worst offenders in terms of saturated fat content.

Last year, Emek parents formed a committee and worked with the school’s caterer and a nutritionist to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. Parent Amy Leibowitz, who spearheaded the committee, said it was a challenge to satisfy nutritional, budgetary and kashrut considerations simultaneously. The results included adding fruit and salad, subtracting dessert, serving foods that are baked instead of fried, serving leaner, lower-salt meat, and making water available at mealtimes. She said that classes now celebrate all the month’s birthdays at one time to limit the influx of sugary treats.

Maimonides also revised its lunch program, and modified the practice of using food as an incentive. Instead of giving Israeli chocolates as rewards, principal Gross now gives Israeli postcards.

“We’re not yet where we want to be,” he said. “But we’ll eventually get there.”
Vending machine soft drink sales — a tempting source of revenue for some schools — will likely decline due to a decision announced in May by the nation’s largest beverage distributors to discontinue selling beverages with more than 100 calories to schools. It is estimated that the practice will affect 87 percent of the public and private school market.

As schools grapple with decisions regarding food policies, Emek’s Strajcher says that they can look to Judaism for a model of dietary self control.

“Kashrut [shows us that] when it comes to food, there has to be a certain discipline,” he said.

And as Eileen Horowitz, principal at Temple Israel of Hollywood, noted, “The [mission] for a Jewish school is teaching how to make good choices. That applies to how we talk to a neighbor as well as what we put in our mouth.”

Just Do It

Some administrators cited the challenge of fitting in adequate time for physical activity and comprehensive health education on top of an already full dual curriculum.

“There’s tremendous pressure for time,” acknowledged Dr. Roxie Esterle, Heschel’s associate head of school. “It’s a very full day and it gets fuller and fuller,” she said, mentioning computers and technology as examples.

Secular schools also struggle with these issues. A recently released national report found that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was threatening physical education time because subjects that are not tested — including physical education — receive lower priority. In Los Angeles, 68 percent of high school students failed to meet recommended levels of physical activity according to a 2005 study by the CDC.

Yet, practicality dictates that schools take action on this issue: The California Department of Education states that healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school and are more prepared and motivated to learn. The 2006 Shape of the Nation Report, issued jointly by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, recommends that schools across the country “make physical education instruction the cornerstone of a comprehensive school physical activity program that also includes health education, elementary school recess, after-school physical activity clubs and intramurals, high school interscholastic athletics, walk/bike to school programs and staff wellness programs.”

Given that Judaism mandates the care of our bodies, Jewish day schools have an imperative to address these issues.

“If you’re not healthy, it’s hard to serve God with fullness,” Strajcher said. “Your soul can only do what it needs to do when your physical self is intact.”
He hopes to spare his students from facing the weight issues that have plagued him since childhood, and from the dire consequences which may result.

“If this is preventable and we can do something about it, it’s our obligation to do so,” he said.

Health Report Card for Schools

To determine how well your school promotes wellness, here are some questions to ask:

  1. How much physical education time is allotted?
  2. Is the physical education instructor certified?
  3. Are children actively engaged during physical education and recess?
  4. Does the school offer after-school activities or team sports?
  5. Do health lessons address nutrition and physical activity?
  6. What is the content of school lunches, and who determines this?
  7. Are fresh fruits and vegetables offered daily?
  8. Does the school have a policy on desserts and snacks?
  9. Is there a vending machine on campus? What does it offer?

Soccer on Sunday, Wickedly Wonderful

Soccer on Sunday

Talia Schrager loves soccer. She loves being able to run and kick and shout with other girls. Her mother, Sandra Lepson, loves the assertiveness and self-confidence the game inspired in her daughter.

But Talia, a second-grader at Beth Am’s Pressman Academy on the Westside, knew it would all come to an end the season after she turned 8: The older teams in American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) play on Saturdays, when she’s at shul, not on the field.

While Maccabi sports league offers games on Sundays in the winter (as opposed to AYSO’s fall season), the teams are all coed and girls tend to drop out once they hit third or fourth grade. Talia wasn’t interested.

Lepson did not want to see Talia lose soccer, especially the small, all-girl, well-coached teams she was used to. Lepson called in Miriam Prum-Hess, a Federation executive whose 7-year-old, Ezra, is also at Pressman and also loves soccer. After some research, they got in touch with Steve Stautzenbach, a volunteer who runs the Hollywood-Wilshire AYSO region.

It turns out that his region had been looking for a way to tap into the large Jewish population in the Fairfax and La Brea areas, and a deal was struck.Within weeks of word spreading that AYSO would offer a Sunday league, Lepson and Prum-Hess — who now sits on the Hollywood-Wilshire AYSO Board — had inquiries from more than 100 interested parents.

“While being shomer Shabbat means prioritizing our family’s observance above other opportunities, I don’t want my child to hate Shabbat because of what she can’t do,” Lepson said.

Registration for the Sunday league, open to children ages 7-12, is Sunday, July 30, 9 a.m.-noon at the auditorium at Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd. (next to The Grove). Go to to download forms. If you are interested in registering and cannot make it on July 30, e-mail

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Wickedly Wonderful

The Oztastic musical, “Wicked,” will be back, saying, “There’s no place like home,” beginning Feb. 9, 2007, when a new production of the Broadway blockbuster begins an open run at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.

The national tour of the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman hit, which tells the story of what happened in Oz before Dorothy dropped in, included a seven-week sold-out stop in Los Angeles last summer.

“It has been one of the most popular musicals not just to ever play at the Pantages, but to have ever been performed in Los Angeles,” said Martin Wiviott, general manager of Broadway/L.A. — local presenter of the show, which is moving its theatrical lineup from the Pantages to other L.A. venues.

The story of the “good” witch, Glinda, and the “wicked” witch, Elpaba, has even inspired singalongs, clothing and a line of cosmetics (in, of course, pink and green). So what is it about the Tony- and Grammy-winning musical that has audiences so spellbound?

“If you take a familiar story and you come at it from another point of view, the tension between the audience’s preconception and the approach you’re taking to the story adds an extra level of response,” composer-lyricist Schwartz (“The Prince of Egypt”) told The Journal in 2005, when “Wicked” flew into the Pantages for the first time.

As for those who just have to get tickets, you won’t need a magic wand this time.

“We are planning to make Los Angeles a home for ‘Wicked’ as long as the public’s demand for our show will allow,” producer David Stone said.

“Wicked” will begin performances at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., beginning Feb. 9, 2007. $25-$88. At present, tickets are only available to subscribers of Broadway/L.A. by calling (866) 755-2929; or for groups of 15 or more by calling (866) 755-3075 or visiting For more information on the show, visit

— Shoshana Lewin, Contributing Writer

Hugs on Drugs

Warnings from health and law enforcement officials on the dangers of Ecstasy have not deterred Jewish teenagers and young adults from using the drug.

"Ecstasy is kind of like pot, it’s a drug that kids aren’t too concerned about using; it doesn’t seem dangerous," said a 20-year-old CSUN psychology major who admitted to using the drug "every weekend, at least."

His friend, also 20, described the feeling he got from the little pill: "When you’re on [Ecstasy], nothing seems dangerous. You just love everything. That’s probably the most dangerous thing."

The psychology major agrees: "The first time I tried Ecstasy, I was with a girl I’d been seeing for three weeks. I told her I loved her. That was stupid. But I loved everyone that night."

As for neurotoxicity, or damage to the brain from drug use, the CSUN psych student seemed unconcerned about the warnings. "As long as I get a lot of sleep afterward, I’m right back to normal. I don’t think there’s any long-term effect."

Young Jews are not immune to the craze, a 28-year-old multimedia designer told The Journal. "Most of the people I go out [to dance clubs] with are Jewish, and they all [use Ecstasy]."

For people involved in drug education, the lack of concern is worrisome. Jonathan Zaleski, the associate director of Dance Safe Southern California, a 1-year-old organization practicing "harm reduction" at Los Angeles-area raves and other dance events, says he has been a member of the dance community, attending raves for some time. "I see people making dangerous choices," he says.

With Dance Safe, Zaleski, 32, and about 70 volunteers set up information booths at raves and other large dance events, offering information about potential side effects, drug interactions and preventative measures for people who do decide to use drugs. "We never tell people how to do drugs better, just to decrease risks they might take," he says. "With Ecstasy, the danger isn’t an overdose. It’s people who aren’t aware of their need to drink water, or who took an adulterated pill. That’s when you see kids leaving in an ambulance."

The physical side effects of Ecstasy, which most commonly include dehydration, jaw clenching and teeth grinding, and mild to severe depression after "coming down," are not the worst effect of the drug according to one 24 year-old frequent club-goer who tried Ecstasy once. "You see a bunch of people on a dance floor in a club, and you can tell the ones who are on [Ecstasy]. It’s not like most people are. The kids on Ecstasy, they’re the one running around hugging everyone, giggling, touching everything. You can tell they’re on Ecstasy, because they act like 3-year-olds."