Truth-Telling in the Land of Erin Brockovich


A California epidemiologist is determined to continue to get at what he believes is the truth about cancer in Hinkley, the community made famous by the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich”. John W. Morgan, who runs Region 5 of the California Cancer Registry, says that the real culprit in Hinkley is a lack of proper screening and detection.

The movie dramatized the fallout when it was discovered that Pacific Gas and Electric had allowed hexavalent chromium to leach into the water supply. Erin Brockovich, the single-down-and-out-mom-turned-legal-eagle, fights on behalf of the townspeople, who are convinced that they have been sickened by the chemical, also known as chromium 6.

Photo courtesy Flickr user takomabibelot/ Creative Commons license

Photo courtesy Flickr usertakomabibelot/ Creative Commons license

In 1996, Ms. Brockovich won a very large settlement from PG&E on behalf of Hinkley. She has since gone on to become an active plaintiffs’ attorney in environmental case nationwide. A sampling of her suits can be found on her website.

Was there ever a cancer cluster in Hinkley? Dubious, say many epidemiologists, including Dr. Morgan. There have been many articles questioning the chromium 6-cancer link there, but litigation continues.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) considers chromium 6 a carcinogenwhen inhaled. The data is not as clear on what happens when it is otherwise ingested. When I spoke with Dr. Morgan at the American Association of Cancer Research’s meeting on disparities earlier this week, he said a lot of data showed that the chemical was rendered into a fairly inert substance when diluted in water.

He passionately discussed the data he presented at the meeting–the fourth in a series of surveillance studies on the 3,500 or so people who live in what is described as the “Hinkley tract.” Previous snapshots were issued in 1997, 2000 and late 2010. They all have shown the same thing, said Dr. Morgan: there is no excess of cancer that could be attributed to chromium 6 in the water supply.

The current data presented a surprise: there was an excess of cervical cancer. Two cases were expected, but there were 7. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is considered the major causative agent. These cases “represent a failure to detect and treat a premalignant condition.”

Another aspect of the data also hints at lack of evidence-based cancer screening in Hinkley–there were fewer than expected cases of prostate cancer. Another sign of failure: 33% of colon cancer cases were diagnosed at a late stage, compared to 18% county- and state-wide.

Dr. Morgan noted that Hinkley residents have lower incomes and less education when compared to San Bernadino County residents or Californians overall. The area is also isolated geographically.

The real crime is that the townspeople are not getting appropriate health care, he said. He added that he has been told that there is about a billion dollars worth of chromium 6-cancer litigation in progress. He should know, as he is regularly deposed for the cases.

“Can you imagine what you could do with $1 billion for health,” said Dr. Morgan.

What do you think? Should Steven Soderburgh maybe revisit this story?

—Alicia Ault (on Twitter @aliciaault)

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