The Lies of Erin Brockovich

The possum has fifty teeth. More than any other North American mammal except Julia Roberts. Ms Roberts' dentition and other cosmetically enhanced mammalian attributes are now on exhibit at neighborhood movie houses, in her latest flick Erin Brockovich. This movie purports to be the true story of a single mother with three children and no formal education who lands a job as a filing clerk in a law office. Erin becomes curious about a small land purchase by the $30 billion utility company PG&E. She then goes poking around Hinkley, California. The uneducated Erin turns amateur epidemiologist and aggressively drums up six hundred plaintiffs for her employer’s law practice. The lawyers for these “victims” then claim that the residents of Hinkley, California were harmed by minuscule amounts of chromium in their water supply. Erin points her accusing finger at PG&E.

According to the Erin Brockovich website which Universal Studios uses to tout the movie, Erin “seemed like the perfect role model for the new millennium.” And “by triumphing over insurmountable odds, she is able to prove herself and reinvent her life.” Wow! Feminist triumphalism! Irresistible catnip for the imaginations of countless women living humdrum lives. Roberts wears 52 gaudy outfits in ninety minutes. Universal calls it “a Cinderella story.”

If, however, the big corporation didn’t harm the plaintiffs, then the inflated Erin Brockovich collapses into a tawdry tale of one ignorant intrusive exhibitionistic busybody on the make, whose breasts continually challenge all half-hearted efforts at containment. The sainted “victims” morph into leeches and hypochondriacs. According to the Universal website, the film makers “made a conscious decision to avoid courtroom scenes.” That’s good for box office receipts, because courtrooms are where defendants get to present their evidence.

The primary test for determining the cancer-causing potential of chemicals is called the Ames Test. It was named after Bruce Ames, now a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California. When asked about the all-important premise of the movie Erin Brockovich Professor Ames responded: “It’s really not very plausible that that little bit of chromium in the water did what it was supposed to do. The amount of chromium was just not credible.”

Professor Ames abandoned his own belief that trace amounts of chemicals cause cancer clusters when his testing revealed that about half of all natural substances include carcinogenic chemicals. Even organically grown vegetables contain carcinogens. Testing indicates that the last cup of coffee you drank contained at least 17 carcinogens and packed more cancer-causing potential than 150 gallons of the drinking water of Hinkley, California, where the enterprising Erin Brockovich launched her scare campaign.

Professor Ames points out that in order to win “cancer cluster” cases, sharp lawyers must promote trash science by narrowly focusing the jury’s attention on only one chemical, while scrupulously avoiding any mention of the much greater risks from such hazards as smoking and bad diet. “They never controlled for things like smoking and diet,” Ames said. “Nobody wants to think anything they do is their own fault.”

That quarter of the population that eats the least fruits and vegetables has double the rate of cancer as the quarter that eats the most fruits and vegetables. The working-class folks whom Erin signs up as plaintiffs are exactly that segment of the population most likely to chain smoke and use their bodies as grease traps.

So, were the blue-collar folks in Hinkley poisoned by the evil corporate bosses? No. Professor Ames continues: “There is no evidence that any trace amounts of chemicals are causing any cancer. But if you tell people they’re going to make money, then every possible ailment in the town is going to be blamed on chemicals.” He dismissed the movie as “ a completely Hollywood thing. Everybody likes to look at Julia Roberts.”

As for the real life Erin Brockovich, she bitches that every time she sets foot in Hinkley she is beset by various ailments, even though she doesn’t drink the water. What could be her problem? Well, in the movie, Julia Roberts fires up a cigarette and sucks over a thousand noxious combustion products deep into her lungs. Cigarette smoke also contains chromium, which is far more damaging when inhaled than when ingested. Maybe that’s Erin’s problem. When last heard from Ms Brockovich was off looking for other towns where she could replicate the Hinkley cash cow. It’s been a sweet ride for this uneducated flamboyant exhibitionist. A Cinderella story, indeed. In the end, it will be California’s poorest residents will suffer the most from higher utility prices that will result from lawsuits based on bogus science.

So, what is the “true story” behind Erin Brockovich? Are Erin Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry, really the environmental crusaders depicted in Universal Studio’s press releases? Hardly! Ed is a sleazeball attorney who built his reputation defending lake polluters in Riverside, California. In 1981 he was convicted of stealing money from a religious cult. From the very beginning, the team of Ed and Erin have been two hustlers on the make.

In the Hinkley case, Masry’s firm ganged up with two heavy-hitting L.A. law firms, including toxic-litigation superstar Thomas Girardi. Together they descended on the small town and launched a campaign to convince the residents that virtually any illness that they had ever suffered was caused by tiny trace amounts of chromium in Hinkley’s ground water.

The litany of illnesses cited in this case included rashes; nosebleeds; stress; chronic fatigue; lupus; Crohn’s disease; various tumors; cancers of the breast, lung, brain and lymph nodes; as well as something gruesomely described as “intestines eaten away”, which does not comport with any known disease.

Have any of these disorders ever been linked to chromium 6? No. Never. The Environmental Protection Agency, the authority that sets drinking-water standards, states emphatically that “No data were located in the available literature to suggest that chromium 6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure.” The literature does show that workers who inhale massive amounts of chromium 6 over a period of many years may, in some cases, develop nasal and lung cancers. There is no evidence that ingesting chromium 6 causes health problems. Numerous studies of persons living near sites with high levels of chromium 6 showed no increase of any type of disease. California’s Cancer Registry states that this is also true of Hinkley.

Erin Brockovich now receives as much as $25,000 per appearance to show up and present herself as an environmental crusader. She says she has “200 studies” that support her preposterous claims, but she won’t show them to anyone; they’re super top secret. She could make a million dollars this year just running her mouth. She has a book deal and two TV shows in the works.

Her motivation in the Hinkley case was purely financial; truth and compassion had nothing to do with it. The three law firms for the plaintiffs pocketed 40 percent of the $133 million settlement, plus a whacking $10 million for expenses. Erin Brockovich, personally, received two million dollars. Most of the Hinkley clients made far less and the awards were completely arbitrary. One man, who had twelve inches of his colon surgically removed, received $100,000, while a woman who underwent the same operation received twenty times that amount. As one Hinkley client explained: “If you were buddies with Ed and Erin, you got a lot of money. Otherwise, forget it.”

In this case, the bad guys won because PG&E was made the target of a well-financed smear campaign and was suffering horrible publicity. The case was settled by arbitration with no possibility of an appeal by PG&E. When the early cases went against the publicly-owned utility, despite a lack of evidence, the company elected to settle the case just to make the plaintiffs go away. Then they passed the cost of the case on to the public.

The “true story” behind Erin Brockovich is a sordid tale of sleaze and greed. The truth was there for anyone to see, but well-heeled left-wing Hollywood poseurs couldn’t resist the opportunity to smear some honest business people. (Hollywood millionaires aren’t business people, they’re “artists”). The Hollywood elite has never been able to admit that its own slimy products are America’s most harmful toxic effluent.

After the settlement, some of the Hinkley residents hired new lawyers to sue their original lawyers. One of the replacement lawyers caught the true spirit of the whole affair when he said, “I read the script; the only true part was Erin Brockovich’s name.”

Recommended website: Junk Science

Thomas Clough
Copyright 2001