LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 5 no 2  1997 ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Book Review: A Civil Action

Reviewed by Colin Hesse

A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr. Arrow Books, 1997 rrp $14.95

The subtitle of this glossy looking paperback says, "A True Story". It also contains a list of notes and sources at the end. In every other way though it reads just like the thriller it looks like. But where A Civil Action differs from most of the pulp fiction that you can find at the local newsagency, is that the story it tells is one which raises a great many questions about pollution, government environmental regulation, scientific research, law and power.

Author Jonathan Harr tells the story of a small industrial town in USA. During the late 60’s and into the 70’s an alarming number of childhood leukaemia cases develop over a short period of time in a small area of town. As one distressed parent after another discover that their personal tragedies are not isolated cases, the locals get the smell of something wrong; namely the water they drink. The water that supplies their part of the town is from an aquifer sourced from an area which, it turns out, is heavily contaminated with chemicals, particularly a solvent called Trichloroethylene.

The bulk of the book is, however, taken up with the legal case, and with the scientific investigation which ensues when the affected families sue the companies they believe are responsible for the damage to their health. It came as a revelation to me that so much scientific research is generated by the legal process. One may also observe from the book that the adversarial processes of the legal system are not the best way to investigate pollution and consequent health problems.

All up, the book, which is just on five hundred pages long, had the television turned off early and this reader up past midnight for the couple of days it took me to finish it. The author has structured his story well and the suspense is kept up to the end. Most recommended to the activist who wants a good read, needs a reason to stay vigilant, and wants to understand why you can never trust self regulation of industry.

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