A Civil Action

by Jonathan Harr

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Woburn: Summer 1966

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In 1966, Reverend Bruce Young takes his first job at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Woburn. The church is quite old and has fewer than fifty parishioners, but Young and his wife consider the position a great stepping stone. Young uses his time to build up the parish, but his focus shifts in 1972 when a local family, the Andersons, learn that their son, Jimmy, has acute lymphocytic leukemia. What starts off as a cold quickly escalates to multiple trips to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to see Dr. John Truman. After a month of treatment, Jimmy is in remission.

When Jimmy is released, the Pine Street neighborhood where the Andersons reside comes together to offer food and emotional support. During this time, a neighbor mentions two other boys in the area who are also ill from leukemia. The neighbor tells Anne, Jimmy’s mother, to reach out to the other families for support.

Anne reaches out to Joan Zona. Her son, Michael, was diagnosed ten months before Jimmy and isn’t doing well.  The more the women talk, the more they begin to wonder what would cause three boys in the same neighborhood to get the same life-threatening disease.

Michael shifts in and out of remission, but Jimmy is doing well, responding exactly as Dr. Truman projected. On one trip to MGH, Anne brings up the multiple leukemia cases and wonders if they are connected, but Dr. Truman “dismiss[es] her suggestion.”

As more boys in Woburn are diagnosed with leukemia, Pine Street resident Carol Gray believes this is no coincidence and relays the information to Anne. Anne becomes curious and begins taking notes about the kids in her neighborhood. She realizes that “the water and the air were the two things [they] all shared.”

The water in the neighborhood is unclean, and everyone knows it. From the taste, the color, and the way it corrodes pipes, people have to mix it with sweeteners or buy it elsewhere. After some discussion, Carol and Anne realize the quality of the water has decreased since Carol moved to Woburn in 1961. In 1964, Well G was introduced to the city water system, pumping water to the families in question. With an increasing need for water in the area, Well H was opened, with G and H mainly serving the northeast side of the city. The Andersons arrived in 1965.

It is 1967. The Mass Department of Health contemplates shutting down the two wells for good, but after some protest, chlorination becomes the solution. Townsfolk call and complain about the poor water quality, and the wells are shut down. But eventually, the need for water overrides safety concerns.

As time goes on, things change in the Anderson household. Jimmy doesn’t want to go to school, spending most days attached to Anne. Their unhealthy bond causes the relationship between Anne and her husband, Charles, to suffer. Charles doesn’t believe Anne’s claims about the water and disagrees with Anne’s parenting choices. Even Reverend Young, who accompanies the family on hospital trips, tries to help Anne “see reason.” Everywhere Anne turns, someone attempts to dispel her growing obsession with the water, including Dr. Truman.

A year later, another case of leukemia—a child named Robbie—is brought forward by another Woburn family. This time, it takes months before a diagnosis is made, which delays force Robbie to undergo hip surgeries. Reverend Young visits the medical center to speak with Donna, Robbie’s mother, and as they speak Young’s tone changes. Young asks if the doctors explained how Robbie contracted leukemia and if she suspects it could be caused by the water. These...

(This entire section contains 1071 words.)

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questions make Donna think.

Donna’s situation becomes worse once she learns that Robbie’s hip surgery was done incorrectly, causing lifelong paralysis in one of his nerves. She is encouraged to sue for malpractice and finds a lawyer who is willing to take her case. Thankfully, Robbie’s leukemia goes into remission, and even though he has a limp, he is living a full life, making friends everywhere he goes. However, after three relapses, Robbie dies.

It is 1979. Police are called to investigate 184 barrels of waste left on a plot of land near northeast Woburn. Someone has been secretly dumping a toxic substance. The state environmental inspector tests Wells G and H immediately, which exhibit severe contamination. After some investigation, it is clear the barrels didn’t contaminate the wells, which leaves the community wondering what did.

That September, a lagoon filled with arsenic and other deadly chemicals is found near a tanning plant. It’s not yet confirmed that these chemicals reached Wells G and H, but now, the rest of the Woburn community is listening to Anne’s “conspiracies.” Reverend Young takes action. He asks to meet with anyone in Woburn who has been affected by leukemia in the last fifteen years. The Revered finds twelve cases. The number doesn’t seem high, but the location of the cases is concerning. Most are in or near the Pine Street neighborhood. Young documents the findings and brings a map to Dr. Truman, who states, “this is a very striking cluster.” Dr. Truman calls Dr. Clark Heath at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Heath specializes in leukemia clusters, and after hearing this news, he sends an epidemiologist to Boston. That December, the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Health begin an investigation to see if this is indeed a cancer cluster.

During the investigation, Donna is told to call a lawyer by the name of Joe Mulligan. Mulligan believes the evidence presented on the map speaks for itself, but they need to find out who is behind the contamination before they can move forward. Mulligan asks Young to arrange a meeting with the affected families. After the meeting, five families agree to meet with him privately and use his services.

More heartbreak hits the Anderson family, as Anne and Charles decide to separate. That same year, Jimmy’s condition worsens. He doesn’t have leukemia, but his bone marrow is deteriorating. In January 1981, Jimmy dies in the hospital. 

Five days later, the investigative report is released, acknowledging an unusual number of leukemia cases in east Woburn and noting the potential importance of water contamination. The dates of the wells’ installations match up with the leukemia cases, but until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges the source of contamination, nothing further can be noted.


Boston: July 1986


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