`Nova' takes balanced look at toxic-waste controversies. `Toxic Trials' emerges after court `gag' orders

A local story about toxic waste and its effect on the environment has escalated into an important national story with health implications for everybody. After surviving a series of restraint orders, Toxic Trials (PBS, Tuesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premi`ere and repeats) has fought its way to television screens under the aegis of ``Nova,'' the most consumer-oriented science show on the air. ``Toxic Trials'' explores, among other toxic-waste controversies, the ``cluster'' of leukemia cases in East Woburn, Mass., and the possible effect of the alleged dumping of possibly hazardous industrial waste materials by the Cryovac Inc. division of W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods into an area near two of Woburn's wells. The program is basically a record of one community's determined investigation into the origins of its own misfortune. It seems impossible to find cause and effect, only association.

Association proves to be enough to close down the wells and stop the dumping of wastes. But is it enough to win a lawsuit against the alleged dumpers by the parents of the children who died in the interim?

What emerges from this disturbingly incisive investigation by producer John Angier is the realization that science and the law have different standards in such cases. Science demands a certainty beyond all reasonable doubt, while civil law invokes a ``more-probable-than-not'' standard. According to one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs -- grieving parents of children lost to leukemia in the town -- the law is more humane than science.

The case is being tried in United States District Court in Boston. To its credit, ``Nova'' tries to bring balance and perspective to its presentation, allowing all sides time to state their cases. It is clear that there is valid difference of opinion and perception and sharply varying attitudes toward responsibility.

``Nova'' is performing a clear public service by airing this program now, even in the midst of the swirling controversy engendered by the court case. It seems clear that the complicated problem of the disposal of hazardous wastes must be thoroughly explored and understood by the society which must survive in the future and live with the consequences of environmental decisions being made today.

It is just a bit ironic that ``Nova'' is partially underwritten by Johnson & Johnson, a company having its own unique consumer problems right now.

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