Erin Brockovich (a/k/a Erin Brockovich-Ellis since her 1999 remaraige to actor Eric Ellis) was a ho-hum legal assistant in California until she discovered that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had leached trace amounts of chromium into the water supply of the town of Hinkley. She was almost instantly elevated to the role of people’s champion and parlayed the trace amounts of chromium into a $333 million dollar settlement on behalf of a number of Hinkley citizens, who, according to her, suffered from a variety of ailments caused by chromium toxicity. This modern account of David versus Goliath was compelling enough to be made into a Julia Roberts film hit, which, in turn, propelled the real-life Erin Brockovich to stardom on the lecture circuit. But a troublesome question lurks in some scientists’ minds. Were the riches and fame a reward for good science or good science fiction?
Michael Fumento, a lawyer and accomplished science writer, was one of the first to suggest that maybe the Empress had no clothes. Fumento dared to argue that this paragon of virtue, this heroine extraordinaire, this knight in shining armor who had slain the callous, uncaring giant corporation, had successfully used emotion, not facts as her weapon . This argument merits our scrutiny.
Chromium itself is a shiny, silvery substance that used to adorn our car bumpers before auto manufacturers decided to replace it with plastic, ensuring that even a minor collision will require replacement of the whole bumper. But what a difference three little electrons make! Just remove them from their orbits around the nucleus of a chromium atom and you’ve got a “chromium-3” ion (trivalent chromium), which has completely different properties. This is what happens when chromium combines with other elements to form compounds. And such compounds are always colored, which explains why the name “chromium” was derived from the Greek “chroma” (color). Chromium oxide, for example, is a beautiful green color.
Chromium is an essential nutrient required for sugar and fat metabolism . The human body needs chromium-3 to form “glucose tolerance factor,” a compound that enhances the action of insulin. This is why chromium picolinate (a readily absorbable form) has been studied as a potential aid in managing diabetes. (If subjects are put on a diet low in chromium, their insulin function becomes impaired and can be corrected with supplements. But there is no simple way to assess a person’s chromium status and therefore no simple way to know who would benefit from supplements.) Studies have also suggested that blood cholesterol levels can be improved with chromium supplements. (The evidence is not compelling, but in any case, supplements in the range of 200-300 micrograms a day are safe enough. At doses of around 600 micrograms, though, toxicity concerns appear.) Chromium supplements are also advertised for weight loss and muscle gain despite the fact that the preponderance of studies have shown no such effect. Indeed, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has ordered the leading manufacturer stop making unsupported health claims for chromium-3 supplementation .
Now take away three more electrons from chromium-3, and you have “chromium-6,” or “hexavalent chromium.” This is Brockovich’s chromium; and she is correct that it is toxic. Hexavalent chromium is recognized as a carcinogen on the basis of an increased incidence of lung and nasal cancer among workers who inhale large amounts over long periods of time. Brockovich was correct that hexavalent chromium was used in the PG&E plant as a corrosion inhibitor and that some of the substance was irresponsibly released into groundwater. She is also correct that groundwater levels of chromium-6 in the Hinkley area were elevated, but the elevation was not large  and the amounts involved would be rendered harmless (reduced to chromium-3) by chemicals in tapwater, certain foods, and several chemical reactions that take place within the body [5-9].
Borckovich’s lawsuit attempted to link a much wider spectrum of ailments in the area with the presence of chromium-6 in drinking water. Whether it’s a miscarriage, a rash, bone deterioration, Crohn’s disease, lupus, or any sort of cancer, Brockovich points the finger at chromium-6. In all probability she is wrong. Single toxins do not cause such a wide array of conditions. But when illness strikes, people are ready to pounce on convenient villains, particularly when there is potential for a large settlement.
In December 1987, PG&E determined that 10 domestic wells serving 14 families contained chromium at levels only slightly above the U.S. Department of Evironmental Protection’s drinking water standard. In response, PG&E provided bottled drinking water and offered a free medical evaluation to these families. The medical evaluators found no consistent medical history responses, physical examination findings, or laboratory test results which suggested that the exposed individuals had sustained health effects from the chromium exposure.
In 1999. the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) reported that residents living in the vicinity of the Hinkley site were not in danger because (a) the levels of hexavalent chromium detected in the ambient air were below the level of health concern; (b) no one was drinking the contaminated groundwater; and (c) the level of total chromium in the off-site soil was below the level of health concern; and (d)) no chromium was detected in the area’s supply; and (e) urinary chromium levels among residents with drinking water wells located over the plume of contamination were within the normal range .
Nobody contests the cause-and-effect link between inhaled chromium-6 and lung cancer. But ingesting trace amounts of chromium-6 is quite a different matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. has examined the issue extensively and found no scientific evidence that chromium-6 taken by mouth is carcinogenic . This should not surprise a chemist because it is well established that hydrochloric acid (abundant in the stomach’s digestive juice) converts chromium-6 to the innocuous chromium-3.
The CDHS did not estimate a cancer risk for ingestion of chromium-contaminated drinking water at Hinkley because only prolonged, high-level inhalation of chromium dust is associated with cancer. The results of the medical evaluations did not indicate that the residents had suffered any adverse health effects that were plausibly related to chromium exposure . Moreover, epidemiologists have shown that the cancer rate among workers at PG&E’s Hinkley plant was the same as in the general California population .
So why did PG&E settle with the plaintiffs if there was no compelling scientific evidence to show that the myriad of symptoms suffered by the inhabitants of Hinkley were linked to chromium? Because the company was painfully aware that such cases are often decided on the basis of emotional arguments instead of hard science. Erin Brockovich did a remarkable job painting a picture of a villainous, soulless, giant corporation heartlessly destroying lives for the sake of profits. Facts turn out to be a poor eraser for such an image. The CDHS report was not published until after the case was settled, but even if it had been, the settlement might still have taken place.
Curiously, a sequel to the Brockovich story nearly played out in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. During the 1960s and 1970s, a company that did chrome-plating had dumped liquid waste containing chromium into a nearby lagoon. Corrective measures were taken, and state and federal agencies did many studies and determined that there had been no significant contamination of the drinking water supply . However, community fears were aroused when a chelation therapist (relying on bogus hair analysis tests) falsely diagnosed a few residents with “chromium toxicity” and recommended chelation therapy at about the same time that the Brockovich film hit the theaters. Press reports aroused widespread public concern, and Brockovich’s attorney was said to be considering whether to file suit. In 2000, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) asked federal officials to sponsor a town meeting that would provide science-based information about the situation. At the resultant meeting, public health officials described their studies, Dr. Robert S. Baratz reassured that no risk from chromium-6 exposure existed, and he and Dr. Stephen Barrett debunked hair analysis and chelation therapy. The expert team also met with reporters and the individuals who were most concerned about the situation. As far as we can tell, the community felt reassured and any plans for a lawsuit have been dropped.
In 2003, Brockovich made headlines again when the law firm where she works sued 25 oil and gas companies and the city and school district of Beverly Hills, California. The suits charge that emissions of benzene, hexane, and other substances on the Beverly Hills High School campus have caused hundreds of cases of cancer among those who graduated between 1977 and 1996. However, there is no logical reason to believe that this is true. Time magazine senior science writer Leon Jaroff, who calls the basis of the suits “junk science,” has noted that (a) the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which monitors air quality in the region, has reported that levels of these chemicals are not abnormal; (b) a private testing company hired by company currently operating the oil wells has reached the same conclusion; and (c) epidemiologists point out that the relevant disease rates in Beverly Hills are no different from those in the greater Los Angeles basin . Michael Fumento has labeled the suits “a shark attack.”  In December 2003, investigative reporter Eric Umansky noted that the plaintiffs had not produced any data showing a connection. According to his commentary in the Los Angeles Times:
I spent two months looking into Brockovich-Ellis’ claims for an article for the New Republic and found her evidence to be curiously missing.
How can one explain the discrepancy between what air quality and health officials found and Brockovich-Ellis’ allegations? Lawyer Edward Masry, Brockovich-Ellis’ boss, suggests incompetence or perhaps a cover-up. The air quality district, Masry told me, has been “grossly negligent.” Perhaps. But Masry and Brockovich-Ellis’ own data don’t support their claims. The two refused to share their testing data until a subpoena from the city compelled them to do so. Once handed over, the documents showed that despite Brockovich-Ellis’ claim about repeatedly finding “alarming” levels of benzene, nearly all readings were normal. The highest benzene reading, at 18 parts per billion, was still below state regulations and was contradicted by another sample Brockovich-Ellis took at the same time that showed no measurable benzene.
As for claims about elevated rates of cancer, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis again refused to explain how they came to that conclusion until a judge ordered them to do so. A lawyer for Masry’s firm then acknowledged that the firm had “no commissioned epidemiological study” to support its contentions .
The New Republic article provides a fascinating look at what Umansky called the “weird science” involved in the Beverly Hills suit .
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- Health consultation #8: Past exposure to contaminated groundwater, surfacewater, soil, sediment, air and answers to community questions. Precision National Corporation, CERCLIS No. PAD053676631. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Atlanta, Georgia, Oct 24, 2000.
- Jaroff L. Erin Brockovich’s junk science: Her new suit against oil companies and Beverly Hills has little scientific grounding. Time Online, July 11, 2003.
- Fumento M. The siege of Beverly Hills High. Scripps Howard News Service, March 13, 2003.
- Umansky E. Erin Brockovich stirs up a scare, but where’s the proof? Los Angeles Times, Dec 1, 2003.
- Umansky E. Erin Brockovich’s weird science: Toxic: New Republic Nov 24, 2004. [Download PDF]
Dr. Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Chemistry and Society. In addition to teaching chemistry at McGill, he hosts a weekly “phone-in” show about chemistry on Montreal radio station CJAD, writes a weekly column called “The Right Chemistry” in the Montreal Gazette, and has a regular TV feature entitled “Joe’s Chemistry Set” on the Canadian Discovery Channel. His books, which provide commentaries on the fascinating chemistry of everyday life, include Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs, The Genie in the Bottle, and That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles
This article was posted on February 19, 2004.