Monday, September 26, 2005

“Veritas” is dead at Harvard. The University’s School of Public Health just announced it will give its highest award, the Julius B. Richmond Award (named after the Carter administration surgeon general), to environmental activist Erin Brockovich, widely viewed as the poster girl for junk science.

The Harvard School of Public Health proclaims in its mission statement 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.

The Harvard awards announcement described Ms. Brockovich, whose career was publicized in a movie using her name, as “a file clerk at the law firm of Masry & Vititoe, in California. While organizing 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, Calif., had been severely compromised by exposure to toxic chromium 6… from nearby Pacific Gas and Electric.”

The announcement enthuses that Ms. Brockovich and plaintiff lawyer friends forced the utility to pay “one of the largest toxic tort injury settlements in U.S. history: $333 million.”

What Harvard did not say is there was never any scientific evidence people got sick from drinking the water around Hinkley. (Perhaps Harvard knows: When it said “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 low-dose ingestion has any adverse health effects.

Indeed, a 2001 report by the California Department of Health Services concluded, addressing a major claim of plaintiff’s lawyers: “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.”

Perhaps the folks at HSPH who made this decision believe scientific truth should be determined by jury vote or litigation settlement instead of epidemiological evidence.

Yet Dr. Barry Bloom, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, praises Ms. Brockovich’s efforts “on behalf of all of us.”

Ms. Brockovich and her attorneys, encouraged by the PG&E settlement (presumably offered because PG&E thought a jury might arrive at a far greater sum), are working with thousands of other plaintiffs making similar charges against PG&E and other companies. For example, two years ago she claimed fumes from active oil wells under the campus of Beverly Hills High School caused inordinate levels of cancer and disorders among the school’s graduates. With her team of lawyers, she brought suit on behalf of 21 of them against oil companies that operated the wells. And her future targets seem endless. But now, with the imprimatur of Harvard, she will have credibility.

My question for Harvard: Do you support litigation against corporations accused of causing ill health even lacking evidence of a real health risk? Do you believe public health is advanced by litigation that simply transfers 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 Erin Brockovich before HSPH becomes the Erin Brockovich School of Public Health.

Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (,

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