Despite 'Erin Brockovich' Bluster, Calif. Town Shows Below-average Cancer Rates

Julia Roberts may have been crowned best actress in 2000 for her performance in (and as) "Erin Brockovich", but the film did what politically-loaded Hollywood products often do: it distorted the facts, and may have done more harm than good to the town of Hinkley, CA.

The film followed Brockovich as she led a class-action suit against Pacific Gas & Electric for releasing hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, a cancer-causing toxin, into the water supply in Hinkley. PG&E eventually went to arbitration, and awarded a record-$333 million in damages to residents of the town.

But now, 10 years after Roberts's award-winning performance, and 17 years after the actual suit, cancer rates in Hinkley are unremarkable. In fact, they are lower than would normally be expected. The Associated Press reported Monday:

A California state study has not revealed elevated cancer levels in the town of Hinkley, a small desert community whose struggles with contaminated groundwater inspired the award-winning Hollywood movie "Erin Brockovich."

The California Cancer Registry has completed three studies on Hinkley, where a toxic plume of cancer-causing chromium 6 is once again growing, but found that from 1988 to 2008 cancer rates remained unremarkable. The results were first reported Monday by the Los Angeles Times.

Epidemiologist John W. Morgan says the 196 cases are less than what he would expect based on demographics and the regional rate of cancer.

In fact, the 196 cancer diagnoses account for less than a third of the 650 recipients of money from the PG&E settlement. The low number of actual cancer diagnoses in Hinkley should not be all that surprising, given that chromium 6 is only a carcinogen - i.e., is only cancer-causing - when inhaled.

As investigative journalist Michael Fumento wrote in the Wall Street Journal around the time of the film's release:

The Environmental Protection Agency does consider chromium 6 a human carcinogen. But it’s linked only to cancer of the lung and of the septum. Further, as one might guess from these two cancers, it’s a carcinogen only when inhaled. Even then, research indicates it takes massive exposure over many years. What’s more, "it appears the problem has been associated with production of the compounds, not the actual use," says William Blot, who heads the International Epidemiology Institute.

Here’s what the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, updated in 1998, says about chromium 6: "No data were located in the available literature that suggested that it is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure."

The California Cancer Registry's studies support that finding.

In short, while Erin Brockovich the person made millions pushing a scandal that had no scientific grounding, "Erin Brockovich" the film helped push the counter-factual basis for the PG&E lawsuit into the mainstream.

Not only did the film perpetuate Brockovich's false claims, but it actually hurt the town of Hinkley in the process. Time Magazine reported in 2000 that "the movie's success has scared off potential home buyers and made it difficult for residents to get health insurance."

The facts were this film's first victim, but the citizens of Hinkley bore the brunt of this crusade as well.