The many myths of Erin Brockovich
The town featured in that Julia Roberts film may have been sickened more by lawyers than by a power company.
‘Say the name Erin Brockovich and you think, strong, tough, stubborn and sexy. Erin is all that and definitely more. She is a modern-day “David” who loves a good brawl with today’s “Goliaths”. She thrives on being the voice for those who don’t know how to yell. She is a rebel. She is a fighter. She is a mother. She is a woman. She is you and me.’
This is not an endorsement from a grateful client, but ‘My Story’ from what appears to be Erin Brockovich’s own website. Clearly, Brockovich does not have an inferiority complex. The single mother turned legal clerk turned environmental activist became an international celebrity in 2000 when Julia Roberts gave an Oscar-winning portrayal of her in Stephen Soderbergh’s eponymously titled film. But maybe the feelgood tale of a sassy woman beating a malevolent corporation wasn’t as black-and-white as it appeared on screen.
The plot of Erin Brockovich centres on a court case in 1996 involving a major power company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and the small town of Hinkley in California. PG&E operates a compressor station in Hinkley, which repressurises the natural gas in the company’s pipelines so it can be pushed further on down the line. The compressors in turn need to be kept cool with water, which is itself cooled in cooling towers. The plant’s equipment was coated with a chemical based on a form of chromium – hexavalent chromium or chromium 6 – to prevent it from rusting. This chromium leached into the town’s water supply and is alleged to have caused sickness among the locals.
In the film, Brockovich practically begs for a job at a law firm that had won a car accident case for her. She then notices a set of medical reports relating to Hinkley and because of a series of birth defects and cancers concludes that the townspeople are being poisoned. Eventually, PG&E settles the case for a record $333million. For once, the message is, the little man has beaten the big corporation and a go-getting woman with no legal qualifications has saved the day.
The trouble is that it is far from clear that the townspeople have been poisoned. This week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the California Cancer Registry has found that cancer rates in Hinkley have been unremarkable. Epidemiologist John Morgan, who conducted the California Cancer Registry survey, told the LA Times that from 1996 to 2008, 196 cancers were identified among residents of the census tract that includes Hinkley when 224 cancers would have been expected given the town’s demographic characteristics.
In a way, this should be old news. As Elizabeth Whelan noted on spiked back in 2005, ‘there was never any scientific evidence that people got sick from drinking the water around Hinkley… 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.’ In other words, if you breathe in a lot of chromium 6, it seems to increase your risk of respiratory cancer, but swallowing small quantities would appear to be harmless.
Whelan continued: ‘Indeed, a 2001 report released by the California Department of Health Services, addressing a major claim of the 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.”’
PG&E may have settled a lawsuit for an enormous sum of money, but that doesn’t mean there was any basis to the claim. In order to understand the risks, we need to compare the frequently heartrending stories of Hinkley residents with the wider population. Are the health problems in the town caused by some specific contaminant, or are normal – if often horrible – health complaints being reinterpreted as part of a pattern that isn’t really there? The evidence from epidemiologists would seem to suggest that there is nothing out of the ordinary happening in Hinkley.
In the modern world, we are surrounded by manmade chemicals. The vast majority of them are there to serve a purpose, to help us. Very occasionally, such chemicals have unintended side effects and where there has been recklessness or negligence on the part of a company which allowed contamination to take place, the payment of compensation should be seriously considered.
But what seems to be much more common today is a kind of chemophobia, where the mere coincidence of the words ‘manmade’ and ‘chemical’ is enough to induce an allergic reaction.
In truth, most of the chemicals we employ are harmless at the kinds of doses we are exposed to. Even when substances are declared to be ‘known carcinogens’, it may simply mean that they cause cancer in laboratory rodents at levels of exposure that humans would never face. The fact that we are even aware that these compounds are present is more a testament to the capacity of science to measure minuscule amounts rather than an indication of any danger.
Erin Brockovich might have made good cinema, but such simple parables are a poor guide to life. While corporations will always be concerned in the first instance with turning a profit, the idea that big companies are simply evil is rather childish and conspiratorial. As Frank Furedi has observed, this ‘conspiratorial imagination views people, not as the authors of their destinies, but as objects of manipulative, secretive forces. Life is interpreted through the prism of a Hollywood blockbuster, where powerful evil figures pull all the strings.’ Nothing fits this mindset as neatly as the idea that you are being slowly poisoned in the name of a fast buck.
The case should also remind us that activist lawyers are not necessarily the friends of the poor and the meek. PG&E may have paid out handsomely to settle the case in Hinkley, but the firm that Brockovich worked for took a substantial slice (40 per cent) of that settlement. Such payouts provide an unhealthy incentive for lawyers to go looking for big companies to sue – and for major corporations to become expensively risk-averse. That is not in society’s wider interest.
I hope the epidemiologists have got it right and that the people of Hinkley haven’t, in fact, suffered because of their exposure to chromium 6. If that’s true, however, then the upshot of the story is that many people may have literally been worried sick by the ever-so-helpful Ms Brockovich.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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