Erin Brockovich's latest crusade, against several oil companies and the city and school district of Beverly Hills, California, is as misguided as the one chronicled in the movie that made her famous. With Ed Masry, head of the law firm in which she serves as research director, Brockovich charges that fumes from active oil wells under the campus of Beverly Hills High School have caused inordinate levels of cancer and other disorders among the school's graduates. In June, the firm brought suit on behalf of 21 of those graduates against the oil companies that have, in succession, owned and operated the wells since the 1970s. Last week they also announced legal action against the city and the school district. Suits are still pending on behalf of additional graduates with different kinds of cancers and other ailments. Though there's no evidence the oil wells have caused the problems Brockovich claims, her track record shows she just might triumph in Beverly Hills.
The Beverly Hills cancer scare erupted in February, after Brockovich's firm alerted the local CBS-TV affiliate that she'd soon be filing suit. The resulting two-part TV series caused widespread concern, if not panic, among Beverly Hills high school students, parents and graduates. Six hundred people attended a meeting hosted by Brockovich at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel to recruit potential litigants, who were asked to fill out questionnaires to document their illnesses. Armed with these data, Brockovich charged that emissions of benzene, toluene n-hexane and other substances on the high school campus have caused 300 cases of cancer among those who graduated between 1977 and 1996. Though lacking any valid epidemiological study, she insists that this number represents a highly elevated rate in comparison with expected cancer rates in the general population. "I have 300 cancers staring me in the face and an oil production facility underneath the school," Brockovich told The Economist. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two fit together."
It also doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this is junk science. School officials dispute the numbers Brockovich is throwing about. They say 216 claims have been filed against the school district, and only 94 of them involve cancers. And what about those specific cancers — Hodgkin's Lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and thyroid cancer — listed in the initial suit filed against the oil companies by the Brockovich firm? As the University of Southern California medical school's Cancer Surveillance Program flatly states, "Known causes of these cancers are not petroleum or petroleum products."
Further undermining Brockovich's charges, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, responsible for testing and ensuring air quality in the region, has reported that, "To date, monitoring at the high school area has not shown readings of benzene, hexane and other air toxic levels that are considered abnormal." A private testing company, hired by the oil company currently operating the wells, reached the same conclusion. And the Brockovich firm has not provided any evidence of a valid epidemiological study — which it does not have the expertise to conduct — to support its charges that rates of cancer and other illnesses are higher among Beverly Hills High school graduates than among other residents of the Los Angeles basin. Epidemiologists say a valid study would identify each graduate's ethnicity, diet, smoking habits, employment, family history, place of birth and changes in residency of each graduate, any or all of which might be factors contributing to illness. That's far more comprehensive than the Brockovich firm's approach. They also point to studies showing that the rates of cancer and other disorders in Beverly Hills are no different from those in the greater Los Angeles basin and note furthermore that more than a third of Americans, no matter where they live, eventually develop cancer.
Yet Masry and Brockovich are pressing on, still aglow from their legal and financial triumph celebrated in the movie. That victory has gone largely unchallenged, except by columnist and author Michael Fumento who, as early as 2000, documented some of the firm's questionable tactics. The suit, on behalf of Hinkley, California residents, focused on an ionized form of chromium called chromium-6, a rust inhibitor that was carelessly dumped by the giant utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, and seeped into the groundwater used by the town's residents. In bringing suit against PG&E, Brockovich's law firm charged that chromium-6, in addition to causing cancer, was responsible for disorders ranging from rashes and nosebleeds to lupus, miscarriage and Crohn's Disease in 600 of Hinkley's residents. The case eventually went to arbitration, and a panel of judges awarded residents a settlement of $333 million dollars, 40 percent of which went to the lawyers. For her efforts Brockovich received a two million dollar bonus.
And what are the facts? There is no doubt that PG&E irresponsibly dumped chromium-6, and that the substance is a carcinogen. When inhaled regularly over long periods of time, it can cause cancer of the lung and the septum. But current studies show that, ingested in the trace amount found in Hinkley's water, or in food, it's harmless. According to a 1998 Environmental Protection Agency report on chromium-6, "No data were located in the available literature that suggested that it is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure."
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Chemistry and Society, explains why. The difference, he says, "is that ingested chromium-6 encounters hydrochloric acid in the stomach's gastric juices, and is converted to chromium-3, which is innocuous." Anyway, he points out, "no single toxin causes the wide array of conditions that afflict Hinkley residents."
Critic Fumento hasn't let up. In a column syndicated by Scripps Howard last March, he took a penetrating look at the Beverly Hills furor. "Can you believe a California high school has suffered a shark attack?" he began. "How so? These sharks wear suits. Their names: paralegal Erin Brockovich and Attorney Ed Masry."