John Stossel on Erin Brockovich

These are excerpts from Chapter 5 ("Scaring Ourselves to Death") of the book Give Me a Break by John Stossel (Harper Collins, 2004).

Erin Brockovich is one of the biggest-grossing flims of all times "based on a true story." Julia Roberts is terrific as the feisty investigator bringing justice to the town. The movie brought the real Erin Brockovich lots of great publicity because the mainstream media naively treated her accusations as fact.

The genuine "true story" was different. It was never established that the power company made anyone sick. The power company looked guilty because it did what companies usually do -- escaped the lawyers by settling, paying some $300 million. Brockovich herself got $2 million. That part of the movie is true.

The rest? Brockovich claimed the chemical hexavalent chromium caused uterine cancer, Hodgkin's disease, spinal deterioration, and more. Some activists suggested it made dogs attack people. Scientists roll their eyes when people claim so many different diseases caused by one chemical.

Hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen if inhaled at high levels, but the EPA says no data suggest that drinking chromium causes cancer. The California Cancer Registry analyzed cancer rates in the area and found no elevation in the level of cancer, and a study of 50,000 people who'd worked at the suspect power plants found the workers were healthier than average. See that in the movie? No.

... Since the Pacific Gas and Electric Company case, Brockovich and [the head of her law firm Ed] Masry have gone on to sue Avon, IBM, General Electric, Coronet Industries, and the Beverly Hills School District, claiming that toxic fumes caused hundreds of cases of Hodgkin desease and thyroid cancer since the 1970s. They've successfully frightened a lot of people, but that doesn't mean anyone was actually at risk.

... In America, chemical pollution is actually decreasing, although you'd never know this watching alarmist TV programs and movies like Erin Brockovich. Since 1976, we've made great strides: sulfur dioxides are down 67 percent, nitrogen dioxide 42 percent, carbon monoxide 73 percent, lead 97 percent. More cars are on the road, driving more miles, but smog is down by one-third.

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