Cancer Crusader Takes on Oil, School

Lori Moss waited three hours to meet her heroine, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, at a book signing last year, even though Moss was weak from her chemotherapy treatment.

The meeting turned out to be exactly what Moss had hoped — Brockovich was intelligent and personable.

But Moss was surprised at how much interest Brockovich took in Moss’ own story.

After Moss, 28, told Brockovich that she had already battled two cancers, the activist became alarmed, Moss said. “She asked me questions like, ‘Where did you grow up?’ and ‘What was in the neighborhood where you grew up?'”

“I don’t know,” Moss told Brockovich. “I know there’s an oil well on my school campus, but that’s all I know,” Moss offhandedly recalled. She had never given much thought to the oil well that sat on the campus of Beverly Hills High School (BHHS) — her alma mater of nearly a decade ago.

Perhaps the oil well at Beverly Hills High School might have gone unnoticed by BHHS students and Beverly Hills’ residents in the past, but these days it’s hard to miss. In a legal battle that has pitted oil companies against hundreds of BHHS graduates, Brockovich has spurred a class-action lawsuit, claiming that a network of oil wells underneath the campus is responsible for turning the affluent high school into a “cancer cluster” site, an area where the occurrence of a particular cancer is higher than average.

As the high-profile case awaits trial, Moss, the impetus for Brockovich’s crusade, is taking an active role in her own life. The Jewish Westwood resident was once secretive about her cancers, only allowing her closest friends and family to know she was sick; now the petite and private woman has willingly become the spokesperson for the case, and she welcomes the public spotlight — if it means seeing justice done.

“[The case] has really taken over,” said Moss, who has recently appeared in People and Glamour magazines and on Court TV and the “Today” show. “I’ve always been very quiet about my diseases. But as time was going on, I realized, ‘You know what? If I can help one person and at least make a difference, then I will open up about my diseases.’ I also knew at that point I wasn’t alone, there were a lot of others. You feel a need knowing that there’s other people.”

Moss only discovered just how many others shared her experience several months after her initial interaction with Brockovich, when the investigator relayed that at a meeting for an unrelated case, somebody muttered, “You think this is bad? You should check out Beverly Hills High School.” Brockovich, the director of research at the law offices of Masry and Vititoe, then recalled meeting Moss at the book signing.

Moss had known about two other BHHS graduates who had cancer, but it never struck her as unusual. But Brockovich’s call about a year ago set Moss into action. As Moss spoke to more people, she became increasingly suspicious. “Before I knew it, this one knew another person and this one knew another person,” Moss said, noting that the people had one of three types of cancer: Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer.

When Moss found out about a cancer victim, she would record the BHHS alum in her journal and call the person: “Hi my name is Lori Moss, formerly known as Lori Herman,” she would generally start her phone calls, using both her maiden name and married name (to husband Randy Moss). “I went to Beverly, and I’ve been sick with cancer and if I’m correct, I heard that you were sick with cancer, too.”

The story “Toxic School?” broke Feb. 10 on KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, revealing that tests taken by UCLA toxicologist Dr. James Dahlgren had found “abnormally high levels of benzene, methane and n-hexane” — byproducts that Dahlgren said “would be high at an oil refinery.” The byproduct of the most concern was benzene, which has been known to lead to cancer. The report also revealed that Brockovich had found a 1984 environmental impact report commissioned by the Beverly Hills Oil Co. (the previous owner and operator of the site), as required by the city of Beverly Hills, which admitted that the oil well could potentially be a health hazard.

By the time “Toxic School?” aired, Moss had talked with approximately 50 graduates who had cancer. After the story broke, the calls came in by the hundreds — each individual expressing varied reactions. “A lot of people knew that there was an oil well there, but a lot of people didn’t know. So it was kind of a mixed reaction,” Moss said. “I had a lot of people who cried, couldn’t believe the information…. Some people — men — would tell me that they remembered that when they had physical education and they would run around the track, they would smell the oil. I heard people say that they would take off their shirts when they would run the track and wrap them around their face to cover their mouth and nose.”

Moss is now one of 21 BHHS graduates (’77-’96) with Hodgkin’s serving as plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed on June 9 by Masry and Vititoe against the 17 oil and gas companies that ran the 19 wells, which stopped production in May.

Ed Masry, who is famous for working with Brockovich on high-profile class-action suits, such as the one in the 2000 film, “Erin Brockovich” starring Julia Roberts, said this is the first of a number of lawsuits he will bring against the companies, Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills School District — both which have received oil royalty payments for many years. (Other lawsuits will represent BHHS graduates and Beverly Hills residents with other types of cancers.)

Defendants deny Masry’s and Brockovich’s claims, and assert that the air is safe. They also deny the area is not a “cancer cluster” site.

A Feb. 11 and April 22 series of tests conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), the air pollution control agency for Los Angeles County, found that “to date, monitoring at the high school area has not shown readings of benzene, hexane and other air toxic levels that are considered abnormal,” according to an SCAQMD memo. “In addition, the measured level of propane and methane in the samples are not considered a threat to human health.”

Beverly Hills and BHHS have also commissioned other firms to conduct indoor and outdoor air testing, which have found that the air is safe. One of those firms, Camp Dresser & McKee, will also conduct additional ambient air, soil and soil gas testing this summer. The city has also subpoenaed Masry and Vititoe’s data and research, claiming that the law firm only published selective reports.

“We have concerns, and we will continue to have concerns, because it is our job to ensure the health and safety of our students,” Beverly Hills High School District Superintendent Dr. Gwen Gross said about the current state of affairs on campus. While some parents have requested alternative indoor physical education for their children, Gross said, she “is not aware” of any parent who has pulled his or her child out of school.

“We are in a position of relying on factual data, nonalarmist, nonemotional, nonspeculative approaches,” Gross said, “and we are taking a firm, data-based message to our community.”

In response to current parental concerns at BHHS, Dr. Wendy Cozen, cancer epidemiologist with the USC Keck Cancer Surveillance Program, recently released a report on Beverly Hills residents stating that the observed numbers of Hodgkin’s Disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer were within the expected range, and that known causes for these types of cancers are not petroleum or petroleum products. “We believe that an oil well cannot be cause for concern,” said Cozen, who, along with her husband, Dr. Thomas Mack, is part of the cancer registry that collects information on every cancer patient diagnosed in Los Angeles County. She said that based on studies of people who live near refineries, oil wells cannot cause cancer.

The plaintiffs’ claim of a “cancer cluster,” Cozen said, should be attributed more to the types of people who live in the area, rather than their environment. According to an independent study she is conducting separately in relation to BHHS, Cozen said that Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid cancer are all higher in Ashkenazi Jews.

Masry believes Cozen’s research doesn’t focus on the school itself, but the general Beverly Hills area. “We’re not arguing that the city has an increase in cancer. Most of our alumni don’t even live in Beverly Hills,” Masry told The Journal. “We’re arguing that alumni of Beverly Hills High School have significantly high levels of cancer above the national average. What she’s saying may be absolutely accurate, but it has nothing to do with our case.”

The woman who set the whole case into motion is now cancer free. Moss, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 2001, is still haunted by the experience. Two months ago, Moss felt a small lump on her neck and went to the doctor to have an MRI. “It came back that the lymph node was larger than the previous MRI and it did look suspicious,” Moss said. “The blood came back normal, so they’re just going to watch it. But these are the things you live with every day, knowing and feeling your neck all the time.”

One BHHS graduate who had contacted Moss during the case recently passed away. “It affected me a lot. She had Hodgkin’s too, and that’s what scares me. Obviously it was caught at different times — her stage was different than mine — it was a different situation. But considering it’s the same disease, it scares me.”

The worst part of her experience, Moss said, is the stress it has caused her mother. “Obviously, if my mom knew that there was this cancer-causing whatever, she never would have sent me there,” said Moss, who attended Stephen S. Wise Temple day school from first through fifth grades, until her parents switched her to the Beverly Hills school system because of the exemplary reputation of its schools. “I can’t believe my mom had to watch me go through all of this,” Moss said. “You know, you’re an adult and your mom’s bathing you again and cooking for you and feeding you. I just can’t imagine it from a mother’s point of view.”

Although Moss realizes that she can never take back the years that she spent battling her diseases, she hopes that her experience will at least inspire change. “What I’ve been through is one of the worst things anybody can go through,” said Moss, who spends most of her time as the spokesperson on this case. “If anything can come of this, they need to go into that school and they need to make a difference and they need to clean it up and make it a safe and healthy environment for all these students coming through, and the teachers and the staff,” she said.

“When I think about the students that go there now, who for the next 10 or 15 years are going to freak out about whether they’re going to get cancer or not … it’s a terrible thing to have hanging over your head. So they need to go in there and clean it up and just make it a safe place, because nobody should have to go through what all of us have gone through.”