Harvard Public Health School Ignores Facts, Protests

Published November 1, 2005

The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) on October 18 gave its highest honor to Los Angeles paralegal Erin Brockovich, best known for her beatification in the allegedly “based on a true story” film of the same name.

Julia Roberts portrayed her as having the mouth of a hooker and a heart of gold, but the Hollywood Brockovich is bunk, and this is not Harvard’s finest hour.

Toxic Scare Unsubstantiated

HSPH gives its annual Julius Richmond Award to individuals who “have promoted and achieved high standards for public health conditions.” In a response to outraged HSPH alum Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, HSPH asserted the award is being given to Brockovich for her efforts “on behalf of all of us, and especially the residents of Hinkley, California, whose health was adversely affected by a toxic substance dumped by a utility company.”

Do you feel benefitted? You shouldn’t. Here’s why.

The California Cancer Registry showed no excess cancer in Hinkley compared to surrounding counties, despite the claim of Brockovich and her law firm that residents suffered terribly high rates from exposure to chromium-6 in drinking water. In fact, there was no evidence of any excess illness at all.

Furthermore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxicology Web site, “No data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium-6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure.” Overall, “Exposure to chromium-6 in tap water via all plausible routes of exposure,” even in extremely high concentrations, concluded the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, poses no “acute or chronic health hazard to humans.”

Award Called an Affront

Brockovich pocketed a bonus of more than $2 million in the Hinkley case, although many residents who truly were sick (albeit not from chromium-6) never got a dime.

“This award is an affront to the tens of thousands of public health professionals around the world who have dedicated themselves to preventing premature disease and death from known threats to human health–not purely hypothetical ones,” Whelan observed.

“The only further move Harvard could make to elevate this travesty from the absurd to the surreal would be to ask Julia Roberts to accept the award on behalf of Erin Brockovich,” Whelan said.

High School Scare Unwarranted

Brockovich is now up to her old tricks. Her firm is suing a vast number of oil companies, the City of Beverly Hills, and the city’s school district, accusing them of causing three types of cancer among the approximately 11,000 alumni who attended between 1975 and 1997 by exposing them to oil well fumes on the property of Beverly Hills High School.

“These statistics are 20 times higher than the national average for these specific cancers,” Brockovich told a credulous media gathering, creating hysteria among both former and current students. “I have 300 cancers staring me in the face and an oil-production facility underneath the school,” Brockovich claimed. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two fit together.”

Well then, how about a cancer expert? Under a contempt of court threat her firm admitted it had no data at all regarding excess cancers at the school. In addition, the Beverly Hills Courier reported, long after Brockovich’s “300 cancers” assertion her firm had filed only 216 complaints, of which only 94 concerned cancers. University of Southern California epidemiologists found no unusual rate among former students.

Brockovich also insisted air samplings collected by a lab she had hired showed massive levels of benzene, a human carcinogen. “When [the results] came back I said ‘I can’t believe this.’ So we went four times, five times, six times,” Brockovich claimed. “And each time we were getting the same results.”

But the regional air quality authority conducted its own tests and found no high levels of any toxic pollutant. As it happens, neither had Brockovich. Her lab’s data, which the city was forced to subpoena, showed benzene levels ranging from low to unmeasurable.

Unwilling to Debate Science

I know personally of Brockovich’s foul and forked tongue. She told the New York Times Sunday Magazine on April 28, 2002 she had challenged me “a million times” to debate her. Try zero. In fact, when Vassar College tried to arrange a debate I instantly said yes and waived any honorarium; Brockovich demanded a fee she knew the school couldn’t afford.

When Australia’s version of 60 Minutes flew me to Los Angeles for a segment on Brockovich, I suggested they try to arrange a joint appearance. She refused to appear.

That filmgoers would be confused about Brockovich is understandable. But you might think the Harvard School of Public Health would do a bit more research before giving awards than merely watching a movie.

Michael Fumento ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. This article first appeared on Fumento’s Web site, http://www.fumento.com, and is reprinted with permission.