- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

There's no arguing that America's top-selling film, "Erin Brockovich," is slick and enjoyable. Julia Roberts displays true acting talent (honestly), not to mention numerous painted-on mini-skirts and cleavage that demonstrates the true wonders of a new version of the Wonder Bra.

The problem, alas, comes with the claim to be "based on a true story" of little guys who beat the system. In fact, the lithe Miss Brockovich and her law firm made out like fat rats by exploiting both the system and their clients.

To summarize the film, in 1993 Miss Brockovich, a legal assistant with the Los Angeles area firm of Masry & Vittitoe, began lining up about 650 current or past residents of the tiny Southern California desert town of Hinkley. Everybody and everything from the chickens to frogs to people were purportedly keeling over with illnesses including breast cancer, chronic nosebleeds, Hodgkins disease (lymphatic cancer), lung cancer, brain-stem cancer, stress, chronic fatigue, miscarriages, chronic rashes, gastrointestinal cancer, Crohn's disease, spinal deterioration, kidney tumors, and "intestines eaten away," whatever that is.

It is made obvious that this huge, vastly varied list of symptoms is from exposure to a rust-inhibitor called chromium-6 that leached into the town's drinking water from the nearby Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E;) plant. Clearly PG&E; must owe Hinkley residents a fortune for pain, suffering and wrongful deaths. Ultimately, in 1996, it coughed up $333 million in the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history.

Critics inevitably accepted the premise. One called it a "Gritty true story of a [battle against] an evil corporate empire," while The Washington Post wrote of "the factuality of a story of evil punished," and Roger Ebert gushed that, "Roberts plays a real-life heroine who helped uncover one of the biggest environmental crimes in history."

But it's all false. No one agent could possibly have caused more than a handful of the symptoms described and chromium-6 in the water almost certainly couldn't have caused any of them.

The EPA and other regulators do consider chromium-6 a human carcinogen but only within strict limits. First, it's connected only to two types of cancer, that of the lung and of the septum (the cartilage between your nostrils).

Further, as these cancers would indicate, it's only a carcinogen when inhaled. Even then, research indicates it takes massive doses over many years.

According to the EPA's documentation, updated in September 1998, "No data were located in the available literature that suggested that [chromium-6] is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure." Unless you snort your water, you're off the hook.

Cancer aside, exhaustive, repeated studies of communities adjacent to landfills with huge leaking concentrations of chromium-6 have found no ill health effects. One released in January concerning Glasgow, Scotland, residents found those clearly exposed nonetheless had "no increased risk of congenital abnormalities (birth defects), lung cancer or a range of other diseases."

Coincidentally, a study just published by the International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Md., evaluated almost 52,000 workers employed at three PG&E; plants over a quarter-century. One was the Hinkley plant, another is near Kettleman, Calif., where Miss Brockovich's firm is also rounding up plaintiffs.

The researchers found no excess of cancer when compared to the general California population, and further that the PG&E; worker death rate was significantly much lower than expected.

Are we to believe something causing no harm at the plant itself is nonetheless wreaking havoc on those living nearby?

Meanwhile, rodents dosed at 25 parts per million (ppm) and dogs dosed at 11.2 ppm showed no ill effects, though the amount in Hinkley's water never got higher than 0.58 ppm.

As to miscarriages or birth defects, amounts of chromium-6 administered to rats and mice practically high enough to cause their feces to shine like a polished chrome bumper, 15 ppm to 400 ppm, "is not a reproductive toxicant in either sex," according to the EPA.

Unfortunately, much of this evidence came in after PG&E; settled. Further, Miss Brockovich's firm had brought in a battleship in the form of Thomas V. Girardi, a specialist in toxic pollution suits who makes everybody's short list of the most powerful attorneys in the country.

ABC's "Primetime Live" then aired a show featuring Mr. Girardi, along with heart-wrenching quotes from unidentified residents such as, "Whole families are dying of cancer." Mr. Girardi made several appearances. ABC also baldly prevaricated that, "According to the U.S. Public Health Service, at certain levels chromium-6 can cause diseases of virtually every organ in the body."

No wonder PG&E; tossed in the towel at $333 million when slick lawyers and truly suffering (if not from chromium-6) witnesses could have cost them much more.

Now Miss Brockovich's gang are representing other clients against the corporation, both at Hinkley and Kettleman. But the original plaintiffs might have been shocked if they had believed that what would prevail would be Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Their lawyers snatched over $133.6 million in fees, while Wonder Bra Woman personally received a post-settlement bonus of $2 million, in addition to wages and a previous bonus. Not a bad haul for two years' work.

Unfortunately, to do so she had to falsely terrify a town into believing it had been poisoned for decades and would suffer the effects for life. But hey, it's only business and now show business.

Michael Fumento is an attorney and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he specializes in health and safety issues.

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