Leukemia Cluster in Woburn, US, Linked to Chemical Leakage and Tainted Water

In Woburn, Massachusetts, it was discovered in May 1979 that barrels with industrial fluid containing trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) had been leaking into the Aberjona River. Tests confirmed high concentrations of both organic compounds in two public drinking wells. This was the beginning of community activism and official investigations regarding cancer and environmental hazards in Woburn. By May 1980, 12 cases of childhood leukemia were confirmed in East Woburn, where the population had been drinking from the two wells. In May 1982 the families affected filed a civil suit against the perpetrators WR Grace and Company for 40 million dollars. Following this case, in February of 1984 a group of Woburn citizens called FACE (For a Cleaner Environment) and the Harvard School of Public Health published the results of their two-year study confirming that childhood leukemia in Woburn was directly related to the contamination caused by the company. In 1986, the plaintiffs ended up receiving 8 million dollars.  

Contributed by Griffin Robertson
Course: Global Environmental History
Instructor: Andrew Stuhl, Ph.D.
Bucknell University Lewisburg, US

Further Readings: 
  • Brown, Phil. Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 12, No. 3/4, Special Issue on the Technical and Ethical Aspects of Risk Communication (Summer–Autumn, 1987), pp. 78-85.
  • Costas, Kevin. Science of the Total Environment: A case control study of childhood leukemia in Woburn, Massachusetts: the relationship between leukemia incidence and exposure to public drinking water. 2002.