Putting the Pieces Together
This notification prompted women who had had miscarriages -- whether they had initially considered suing or not -- to revisit a question that had troubled them for years: Could their reproductive problems be caused by something in the water? It seemed almost unthinkable, but it also seemed plausible; Chesapeake residents had regularly complained about the bad taste and smell of the tap water.
A Virginia Beach plaintiff's attorney named Mike Joynes was unaware of the health department advisory. However, for nearly two years, he had heard random accounts from clients of women who had repeated miscarriages and gave birth to children with chromosomal abnormalities, cleft palates, and other congenital malformations -- even though they had had healthy children previously. Joynes considered these to be isolated incidents until he noticed a pattern: Many of the women said the problems began when they moved to Chesapeake.
Nationally, about one in six pregnancies results in miscarriage, according to federal statistics. No comprehensive study of Chesapeake's miscarriage or birth-defect rates has ever been done, so it is impossible to draw a comparison between the period when the THMs were spiking and when they were not.
Nonetheless, Joynes was convinced there was sufficient reason to move ahead. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained city records indicating that the Chesapeake utility regulators knew about high levels of THMs -- at various times exceeding 100 ppb, 200 ppb, 300 ppb, and 700 ppb -- as far back as 1983 and took specific measures to keep residents in the dark by withholding information that should have been public. In July 2000, the law firm ran TV and radio ads seeking women who had lived in Chesapeake between 1980 and 2000 and had suffered miscarriages or had children with birth defects.
"I didn't say what we were investigating," Joynes says. "I never mentioned the water in the ads, but the city told the local newspaper, 'They're talking about the THMs in the water.' My question was, 'Why did they immediately think of water?'"
The ads forced Spaven to relive the pain of the miscarriages she had tried so hard to forget. She and her family had moved to Virginia Beach two months after she lost the second baby, and a year later, she gave birth to a healthy little girl. When she learned that her miscarriages might have been prevented if she'd used bottled water, her pain turned to anger. "I went online and found out that the THMs should be a certain level and that ours were sometimes way over that," she recalls. "And in back issues of the newspaper, I read that the city knew but didn't tell. How many other women wouldn't have had to go through what I did if the city had been up-front with us?"
Joynes got thousands of calls and talked to hundreds of women, some of whom had lost up to five pregnancies. In August 2001, he filed suit in Circuit Court on behalf of 25 women who had miscarried in the mid- to late 1990s. An additional 189 cases were filed for women who had suffered miscarriages dating back to the 1980s. The lawsuits allege that the city failed to warn residents that THM levels sometimes exceeded seven times the EPA standards and posed a significant health risk.