Politics

"Erin Brockovich" Town Shows No Cancer Cluster

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Facts schmacts. Julia Roberts is still awesome.

Hinkley, California, the town made famous in the Oscar-winning Julia Roberts movie Erin Brockovich, does not show any evidence of an increased rate of cancers.

Pacific Gas and Electric, which released a toxic plume of hexavalent chromium 6 from a Hinkley-based natural gas pipeline station, paid a record $333 million to settle a class-action suit in 1996. But the California Cancer Registry has now completed three studies that show cancer rates remained normal in from 1988 to 2008.

From a very strange story by the Los Angeles Times' Louis Sahagun, who starts out with the Registry's findings but then lists more anecdotes about residents (including an eight-year old dog) who claim PG&E-related ailments:

From 1996 to 2008, 196 cancers were identified among residents of the census tract that includes Hinkley — a slightly lower number than the 224 cancers that would have been expected given its demographic characteristics, said epidemiologist John Morgan, who conducted the California Cancer Registry survey.

The survey did not attempt to explain why any individual in Hinkley contracted cancer, nor did it diminish the importance of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cleaning up a plume of groundwater with elevated levels of chromium 6, Morgan said.

"In this preliminary assessment we only looked at cancer outcomes, not specific types of cancer," Morgan said. "However, we did look at a dozen cancer types in earlier surveys of the same census tract for the years between 1988 and 1998. Overall, the results of those surveys were almost identical to the new findings, and none of the cancers represented a statistical excess."

The LAT calls the rate of cancers in Hinkley "fewer…than expected." That depends on who was doing the expectin'. Back in 2000, when the movie came out, Walter Olson wrote in Reason that the Hinkley cancer cluster did not seem to be materializing and gave a thumbs down to the performances of the actual (rather than the Hollywood) Brockovich and her boss, Thousand Oaks personal injury lawyer Edward Masry.

Coincidentally, Brockovich is now back in Hinkley, pursuing claims about a return of the chromium plume.