The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has just announced it’s giving its highest honor to Los Angeles paralegal Erin Brockovich, best known for her virtual beatification in the allegedly “based on a true story” film of the same name. Julia Roberts portrayed her as having the mouth of a hooker but a heart of gold. Yet the Hollywood Brockovich is bunk, and this is not Harvard’s finest hour.
HSPH gives its Julius Richmond Award to those who "have promoted and achieved high standards for public heath conditions." In this case, according to a response to outraged HSPH alum (American Council on Science and Health President Elizabeth Whelan), it’s for Brockovich’s efforts "on behalf of all of us, and especially the residents of Hinkley, California, whose health was adversely affected by a toxic substance dumped by a utility company."
Do you feel benefited? You shouldn’t. Here’s why.
The California Cancer Registry showed no excess cancer in Hinkley compared to surrounding counties, despite the claim of Brockovich and her law firm that they suffered terribly high rates from exposure to chromium-6 in drinking water. Indeed, there was no evidence of any excess illness at all.
Further, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicology web site, “No data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium-6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure.” Indeed, "Exposure to chromium-6 in tap water via all plausible routes of exposure,” even in extremely high concentrations, concluded “the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, poses no “acute or chronic health hazard to humans.”
The true beneficiary of Erin Brockovich has the initials “E.B.” She pocketed a bonus of over $2 million in the Hinkley case, although many residents who truly were sick (albeit not from chromium-6) never got a dime.
She’s now up to her old tricks. Her firm is suing a vast number of oil companies, the City of Beverly Hills and its school district. It accuses them of causing three types of cancer among the approximately 11,000 alumni who attended between 1975 and 1997 by exposing them to oil well fumes on the property of Beverly Hills High School.
"These statistics are 20 times higher than the national average for these specific cancers," Brockovich told a credulous media, creating hysteria among both former and current students. "I have 300 cancers staring me in the face and an oil-production facility underneath the school," Brockovich also claimed. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two fit together."
Well then, how about a cancer expert? Under a contempt of court threat her firm admitted it had no data regarding excess cancers at the school. Further, the Beverly Hills Courier reported that long after Brockovich's "300 cancers" assertion her firm had filed only 216 complaints of which only 94 concerned cancer. University of Southern California epidemiologists also found no unusual rate among former students.
Brockovich also insisted that air samplings collected by a lab she'd hired showed massive levels of benzene, a human carcinogen. "When they came back I said “I can't believe this.” So we went four times, five times, six times,” Brockovich claimed. “And each time we were getting the same results."
But the regional air quality authority conducted its own tests and found no high levels of any toxic pollutant. As it happens, neither had she. Her lab's data, which the city was forced to subpoena, showed benzene levels ranging from low to unmeasurable.
I know personally of Brockovich’s not only foul but forked tongue. She told the New York Times Sunday Magazine that she challenged me "a million times" to debate her. Try zero. In fact, when Vassar College tried to arrange a debate I instantly said yes and waived any honorarium; she demanded a fee she knew the school couldn’t afford. When Australia’s “60 Minutes” flew me to LA for a segment on Brockovich, I suggested they try to arrange a joint appearance. She refused them.
That mere film-goers would be confused about Brockovich is understandable. But you might think the Harvard School of Public Health would do a bit more research before giving awards than merely watching a movie.
Michael Fumento (mfumento at pobox.com) is a fellow at Hudson Institute, a nationally syndicated health/science columnist with Scripps Howard News Service, and author of Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment.