Real-life Erin Brockovich challenges "20/20" report
Author: Sarah Tippit
In a July 14 segment titled "Give Me A Break; Realities Behind Erin Brockovich Story," "20/20" correspondent John Stossel tried to debunk claims made in the film, "Erin Brockovich," and by Brockovich herself, that groundwater in the desert town of Hinckley, Calif., contaminated with the chemical hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, sickened local residents.
"My comment to John Stossel is that before he reports on a story he needs to get his facts straight," the real-life Brockovich told Reuters in a telephone interview Friday.
"There is nothing fraudulent in the movie. What he said was irresponsible. And if he's going to insist that chromium doesn't make people sick I want him to put the chromium where his mouth is. I'm not kidding around. He can get his children around him and drink chromium-laced water," she added.
A spokeswoman for ABC-TV late Friday said the network stands by the story.
The film, one of this year's most watched, starred Julia Roberts as Brockovich, a twice-divorced mother of three who took a job as a file clerk in a California law firm.
After stumbling into some information that implicated a public utility giant, Brockovich became outraged and persuaded her boss to let her pursue the case.
In real life, Brockovich interviewed hundreds of Hinckley residents, some of whom suffered with illnesses ranging from uterine cancer to Hodgkin's disease to spinal deterioration. She helped the Westlake, Calif. firm Masry & Vititoe battle PG&E Corp., which had disposed of chromium-laced waste water in unlined ponds since the 1950s.
No court ever ruled on PG&E's guilt or innocence. After the first 39 plaintiffs won in arbitration, PG&E settled the case in 1996, giving plaintiffs some $333 million, which was the largest amount ever in a class-action suit.
In a July 14 report, Stossel said there was no proof that drinking water with chromium in it causes cancer, that the exposure in Hinckley made people sick, or even that above average numbers of people were sick from drinking chromium.
He also said that the California Cancer Registry found no excess cancer around the Hinckley area. And he cited a study commissioned by PG&E, that concluded that there was no excess cancer in its employees and that they were in fact healthier than average.
Late Friday ABC-TV, which had previously declined to comment, released a statement saying, "Neither ABC News nor '20/20' nor John Stossel has ever suggested that drinking Chromium 6 is safe. To the contrary John Stossel very clearly stated that "drinking, breathing or touching large amounts of Chromium 6 can cause lots of diseases including lung and sinus cancer.
"The issue is whether the dangers of Chromium 6 reach as far as the conclusions made in the movie 'Erin Brokovich,' allegations that have not been proven and instead remain in dispute. Like many of Mr. Stossel's segments, last week's segments concerned the importance of facts in dealing with questions about pollution and public health." Brockovich and her boss, attorney Ed Masry, who held a press conference Friday, demanded a retraction.
"We're not going to sue anybody," Masry said. "We're hoping news media polices itself and reports on this brainless John Stossel report and let people know it's not safe to drink hexavalent chromium. He ought to be fired. A lot of children's chemistry sets are being sold with the chemical. This is not Coca-Cola."
Brockovich, who received a $2 million bonus from her employers for her work on the PG&E case, also objected to Stossel's claim that "the lawyers get rich by frightening people."
"It's not like I'm sitting on $2 million. I pay my taxes, bought a home and had some personal difficulties. The money dwindles fast and I will find myself once again just like before. I still have to work like everybody else," she said.