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12-18-1998

8 Clarkson Prof: New John Travolta Film Tells Story Of Growing Pollution Problem Afflicting Our Nation's Drinking Water

The new John Travolta film "Civil Action," premiering Christmas day, is more fact than fiction, and tells the story of what is still a growing problem for many communities across the nation.

In his latest role, Travolta plays a lawyer hired to sue two corporations for damages arising from the pollution of the drinking water of East Woburn, Mass. In 1979, wells supplying drinking water for the small town were found to be contaminated with industrial solvents. Huge toxic waste sites were discovered later that year, leading to the suspicion that the pollution was caused by local industries. The residents of Woburn had long been concerned about their foul-tasting drinking water and the unexplained high incidence of leukemia deaths in their community.

This movie tells a story that is still of growing concern across the nation today, says Clarkson University Environmental Engineering Professor Susan E. Powers. "The aquifer in Woburn was contaminated primarily with chlorinated solvents TCE (trichloroethylene) and PCE (perchlorowethylene) -- chemicals widely used for cleaning greasy motor parts and dry-cleaning operations.

These chemicals belong to a class of pollutants termed NAPLs (nonaqueous phase liquids) which are very difficult to remove from groundwater aquifers. The widespread use of NAPLs and their discharge to the environment has resulted in groundwater contamination at numerous sites across the country.||||

In fact, it is estimated that over 70 percent of Superfund sites have some NAPL contamination. Fortunately, cancer clusters such as those observed in Woburn are rare in the areas around these Superfund sites. There is presently no direct evidence relating exposure to these chemicals to cancer although there is still uncertainty in the carcinogenic effects of TCE and PCE.

Susan E. Powers, Ph.D., P.E., has been conducting laboratory research on the fate of NAPLs in aquifer systems for the past decade. She received her Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has been a member of the faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 1992. Dr. Powers has received research funding from General Motors, EPRI, NSF and USEPA to support her research associated with the fate and migration of NAPLs in the environment.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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