Why Are Beverly Hills Grads Getting Cancer?

June 18, 2003 -- At 36, Lori Urov had spent too many holidays in hospitals with her family, but she was planning one more.

"I'll be 37 next week," Urov, a devoted wife and mother of two young children, told Good Morning America recently. "I'll have my birthday in the hospital."

In the previous few years, cancer had ravaged her body, and robbed her of precious moments with her loved ones. When Good Morning America met Lori Urov — along with her husband, Tim, and their children Lee and Marty — just last month, she was preparing to undergo a final desperate stem cell transplant to save her life.

"I just felt like someone had opened my mouth and poured Hodgkin's disease down my throat," she said. "And here I am with probably less than a year to live and two kids to raise. I felt literally poisoned."

Urov never made it to her 37th birthday. She lost her battle with cancer just 10 days after speaking to GMA. But she doesn't want her death to stop the message of what she had long believed: that her cancer was the result of toxins that attacked her while she was a California high school student. Urov attended Beverly Hills High along with a star-studded list of alumni that includes Angelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage and David Schwimmer.

Glamorous Beverly Hills is not normally associated with heavy industry, but right next to the school's athletic fields sits a network of working oil rigs. Some community members fear that pollutants from those rigs have been escaping into the air for years, poisoning its students.

Wrongful Death Suit Filed

Suspicious and concerned, hundreds of students have teamed up with celebrity environmental crusaders Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry. The legal team claims to have discovered a shocking cancer rate 20 to 30 times higher than the national average. The well owners dispute the charges.

"I think what the tests show is that the air quality is safe for the workers, safe for the neighborhood, safe for the school," said Mike Edwards, the vice president of Venoco, the rig's current operator.

Last week in Superior Court in Los Angeles, Masry and Brockovich filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against more than 25 oil and gas companies on behalf of plaintiffs who attended the high school between 1977 and 1996. They allege contaminants from the oil wells caused cancer in 21 former students and killed 3 others, including Lori Urov.

Brockovich gained fame as an investigator for the law firm Masry & Vititoe when she pulled together evidence for a landmark 1996 water pollution case that resulted in a $333 million settlement. Her story was featured in the movie, Erin Brockovich, which starred Julia Roberts.

Lori's husband, Tim Ross, has now picked up her torch and is fighting in her honor for the future of their children and other potential victims. Days before her death she pleaded with other graduates for early detection.

"If you are on alert, you may find something and you may find it earlier than I found it," she said. "And had I known, I think that I'd be in a very different situation prognostically right now. I think I would survive this."

Ross said he will continue to participate in the suit in order to find out if his wife's illness might have been linked to her environment, but he says he hopes he finds out that it wasn't.

"If there is a link that means that her family members, her friends, my friends, our community, is potentially poisoned," Ross said. "Lori really wanted it to keep going so people would know whether they have to worry about this or not," he said.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which tracks air pollution for most of Southern California, disagrees with the suit's allegation. After being contacted by a television station investigating the cancer cases, the agency collected several air samples and said it uncovered no evidence of unusually high levels of toxic pollutants in the samples.

Links Hard to Find

Many doctors say that geographical clusters of cancer cases are not unusual, but experts have repeatedly come up empty when trying to find an environmental link to them. Meanwhile, medical experts say it is not easy to connect the dots between diseases like cancer, and the environment, although that often doesn't stop the public.

Dr. William Blot, who directed epidemiological and biostatistical research studies at the National Cancer Institute for 20 years, said thousands of cancer clusters have been reported throughout the United States over the years, with none clearly linked to specific environmental sources of pollution.

"Federal agencies, as well as state health departments, are continually asked to evaluate occurrences of a few or more cancers seemingly occurring excessively, but these investigations have yielded little scientific information about the causes of cancer," said Blot, who is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the International Epidemiology Institute and a professor at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"Part of the problem is that "cancer clusters" are so common and occur naturally all the time."

Dr. Paolo Toniolo, a professor of OB-GYN and environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine said that 21 cancer cases from Beverly Hills High sounds high at first blush, but experts have to look at all the factors.

"The high number, if truly high, could be a pure coincidence, as cancers are rarely distributed uniformly in the population, but tend to lump together in time and space," Toniolo said. Clusters of chronic diseases, including cancer, are common.

In the Beverly Hills case, medical experts would have to closely examine the current age of the patients and the type of cancer experienced. Non-melanoma skin cancers, for instance, tend to be more frequent in those who are exposed to a lot of sun, which would include young people living in Southern California.

"Other factors should also be considered such as the frequency of acquired conditions causing immune deficiency, the use of illicit drugs, the use of steroid hormones or other performance-enhancing medications by athletes," Toniolo said. Experts would also have to look at whether there is a genetic link in the cancer cases.

"Most of the time there is no ground to believe that an environmental agent is responsible given that, statistically, they tend to occur quite frequently," Toniolo said. Rarely are people exposed to elevated concentrations of known toxic agents for a prolonged period of time, except in occupational settings or in special circumstances, such as clusters of people exposed to radiation in Hiroshima, Japan or Chernobyl, Ukraine.

Speculating on the Unknown

When the causes of disease are unknown, as is the case with leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers, the general public often becomes convinced that environmental factors, such as toxic chemicals in the water, air or soil, play a role in cancer, and that incidences are on the rise. In fact, most cancers, with the exception of melanomas, some lymphomas and some subtypes of esophageal cancer, are on a marked decrease in the United States and Europe, Toniolo said.

"Chemical toxic agents in the environment do not appear to play as large a role in human cancer as other environmental agents, like smoking or chewing tobacco, poor nutrition and solar radiation," Toniolo said. "Most people are willing to get mobilized to defend their health against some mysterious external agent lurking in the soil, air or water, while they would be much less willing to raise their voices to fight the high prevalence of tobacco smoking and overweight in our schools, which are ultimately among the main causes of most cancers."

Blot agreed that more attention should be paid to known causes of cancer.

"We do know for sure that tobacco use accounts for nearly one-third of all cancers in the United States, and there is evidence implicating dietary factors in perhaps another third," he said. "In part because of the 'carcinogen of the week' reporting, there is a tendency to speculate that chemicals in our environment are killing us. While there are documented instances of carcinogens in the environment that have caused cancer in some individuals, such instances are rather rare."