Erin Brockovich: Ivy League star?
Harvard University’s School of Public Health should know better than to give its highest award to the poster girl for junk science.
‘Veritas’ is dead at Harvard. The university’s School of Public Health just announced that this year it will give its highest award, the Julius B Richmond Award (named after the Surgeon General in the Carter administration), to environmental activist Erin Brockovich, an individual widely viewed as the poster girl for junk science.
The Harvard School of Public Health proclaims in its mission statement that it seeks ‘to provide the highest level of education to public health scientists, practitioners, and leaders…and inform policy debate, disseminate health information, and increase awareness of public health as a public good and fundamental right’. The Richmond award is given to individuals who ‘have promoted and achieved high standards for public health conditions’.
Let’s see how the glove fits.
Ms Brockovich is described in the Harvard awards announcement as ‘a file clerk at the law firm of Masry & Vititoe, in California. While organising papers in a pro bono real estate case, she found medical records in the file that caught her eye…she began to research records and the history behind them. [Her] persistent investigating, later highlighted in an Academy Award-winning motion picture starring Julia Roberts, eventually established that the health of countless people who lived in and around Hinkley, California, had been severely compromised by exposure to toxic chromium 6…from nearby Pacific Gas and Electric.’
The Harvard announcement then enthuses that Ms Brockovich and her plaintiff lawyer friends were successful (in real life) in forcing the utility company to pay ‘one of the largest toxic tort injury settlements in US history: $333 million’.
What Harvard did not state in describing the basis for the award is that there was never any scientific evidence that people got sick from drinking the water around Hinkley. (Perhaps Harvard knows this, though: when it stated ‘countless’ people got sick, that could mean zero.) While long-term, high-dose inhalation exposure to chromium 6 has been linked with respiratory disease, there is no evidence whatsoever that low-dose ingestion has any adverse health effects. Indeed, a 2001 report released by the California Department of Health Services, addressing a major claim of plaintiff’s lawyers, concluded: ‘We found no basis in either the epidemiological or animal data published in the literature for concluding that orally ingested chromium 6 is a carcinogen.’
Yet despite this, Dr Barry Bloom, Dean of the School of Public Health, praises Ms Brockovich’s efforts ‘on behalf of all of us’.
Ms Brockovich and her attorneys, encouraged by the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) settlement (presumably offered because PG&E thought a jury might arrive at a far greater sum), went on to work with thousands of other plaintiffs making similar charges against PG&E and other companies. For example, two years ago she claimed that fumes from active oil wells under the campus of Beverly Hills High School had caused inordinate levels of cancer and disorders among the school’s graduates. With her team of lawyers, she brought suit on behalf of 21 graduates against oil companies that had operated the wells. And her future targets seem endless. But now, with the imprimatur of Harvard, she will have credibility.
This award is an affront to the tens of thousands of public health professionals around the world who have dedicated themselves to preventing premature disease and death from known threats to human health – not purely hypothetical ones. The only further move Harvard could make to elevate this travesty from the absurd to the surreal would be to ask Julia Roberts to accept the award on behalf of Erin Brockovich.
My question for Harvard is this: do you support litigation against corporations accused of causing ill health even if there is no evidence that a real health risk exists? Do you believe that the cause of public health is advanced by litigation that simply results in a transfer of wealth from a corporation to trial lawyers, advocates like Ms Brockovich, and residents of a community who claim, without evidence, that ‘industrial chemicals’ have made them ill?
As a graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health, I recently posed these questions to Dr Bloom and urged him to rescind the award to Ms Brockovich before HSPH itself becomes the academic poster child for junk science.
Dr Elizabeth M Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health.
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