A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 21, 2000
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240; E-mail:Thomas.Voltero@hou.state.ma.us
PREVENTING BIRTH DEFECTS IS A
"CIVIL ACTION" THAT MUST BE TAKEN
The first time I watched the movie, "A Civil Action," I was absolutely infuriated. As a state legislator, a Winchester resident, and a parent of a little baby girl, I could not help but feel outraged by the events depicted in this true story about working people whose loved ones died from contaminated drinking water.
I was shocked that irresponsible corporations demonstrated the utmost disregard for human life by dumping poisons into the ground. I was angry that it all happened in Woburn, our neighbor to the north. And I was appalled that these companies- instead of acting as responsible corporate citizens by admitting guilt and making amends- took the low road and spent millions to make sure that their crimes would stay hidden from the world.
Fortunately, the plan didn't work completely. None of the managers were incarcerated for homicide, but their reprehensible crimes were indeed uncovered for all the world to see. The corporations involved in the incident have now been placed in the halls of infamy by the court of public opinion. In fact, one of the companies was recently in the news for another scandal involving asbestos.
None of this would have happened, however, if the Woburn families had not come together to talk about the "mysterious" outbreaks of childhood leukemia that had been affecting their little ones. They knew that what was happening was not just a coincidence- something was making their kids sick. So they started to track data, keep records, and ask questions, just as any concerned parent would. And they did, despite massive resistance from corporations with very deep pockets.
One of the best parts of the story portrays William Cheeseman (a lawyer for W.R. Grace) trying to convince Al Love (a Grace employee who witnessed coworkers dumping barrels of TCE into the ground) that the cancer clusters were mere coincidences. He uses the example of throwing 100 pennies up in the air, claiming that some "heads" will naturally land near each other. Love, in a perfect example of blue-collar common sense, replies, "I can't buy it."
Al Love's refusal to be deceived, along with the families' determination to find out what was killing their children, helped to uncover facts that had been kept secret for so many years. For this reason, these courageous individuals deserve our highest praise.
While it is impossible for society to ever repay the families for their service to the community- let alone compensate them for their terrible losses- there are always ways in which we can keep their cause alive today. By studying the Woburn case and learning its lessons, we can take appropriate steps to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.
At a legislative luncheon sponsored by the March of Dimes held in the State House last week, I learned about a piece of legislation (S.466) that would do just that. As many people are already aware, the March of Dimes is a voluntary non-profit health organization that seeks to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality. This organization is currently working with the legislature to expand the current program for monitoring birth defects. The bill in question would extend the period allotted for reporting birth defects and impose stricter standards upon the whole process.
Birth defects are the leading cause of infant death and childhood disability in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 150,000 infants are born with a serious birth defect every year- 3,000 of which are born here in Massachusetts. A good number of these children will eventually die from these defects (our nation ranks 25th in infant mortality). The March of Dimes estimates that, in an average week, 8 Massachusetts babies will die before reaching their first birthday.
Just as in the "Civil Action" case, there is a lot of mystery surrounding the causes of birth defects. While modern research has enlightened us about the dangers of certain factors such as alcohol and tobacco, the causes of 75% of birth defects are unknown. Such a high percentage should be a clarion call for more research to be done in this area, for so many people are left wondering what happened to their babies. Families have a right to know the factors that caused a defect in their child, whether the causal agent be an improper diet, substance abuse, or a toxin in the water supply.
The state has a natural interest in knowing as well, since it is impossible to develop strategies to properly address a problem until we fully understand its origins. Once we know this information, however, we can use the state's resources to prevent defects in the same way we can shut down companies that pollute the environment.
Reporting information and studying it in a central location will bring us closer to resolving the puzzle of birth defects.
Doing so will benefit all families, whether they be those have suffered from a birth defect or those who might. A modest redirection of tax dollars from costly reactive treatment plans (lifetime treatment costs for babies with birth defects is $8 billion) towards a proactive approach will save money and enhance the quality of life for all.
Understanding the "nature of the beast," however, is the first step. Thus, it is important to support measures like the one proposed by the March of Dimes to expand our knowledge of the issue. With enhanced reporting requirements for birth defects, those involved in the health care profession will be better equipped to develop both treatment and prevention protocols. Just as the Woburn families kept track of cancer incidences, the state can use its incredible resources to monitor birth defects throughout the Commonwealth.
Even though our country as a whole may receive low marks in terms of infant mortality, the state of Massachusetts does not have to follow such unfortunate statistics. We can take the lead in solving the birth defect dilemma and show the world that our state is the exception to the rule. By passing legislation that attempts to get to the bottom of the problem, we reaffirm our commitment to stop defects before they happen. After all, prevention is the best cure of all.