Brockovich Awarded SPH’s Highest Honor

Legitimacy of activist’s science is criticized by faculty, others

Erin Brockovich-Ellis, the iconic environmental activist who drew widespread attention to water contamination in a community in California, was honored with the Harvard School of Public Health’s (HSPH) most prestigious award yesterday, angering a lawyers’ group and others at the University who discredit the science behind Brockovich-Ellis’ activism.

Brockovich-Ellis was a clerk at a law firm in Hinkley, Calif. when her investigations revealed that hundreds of people in a single neighborhood had been exposed to water contaminated with chromium-6, dumped there by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Brockovich convinced her firm to bring action against the company, resulting in 1996 in a $330 million settlement, the largest-ever toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history.

Brockovich-Ellis’ crusade was dramatized in the 2001 Hollywood blockbuster “Erin Brockovich,” starring actress Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for the role.

But many scientists insist that no link has been established between the contaminants in the water and the cancer cases in Hinkley, Calif. According to studies published by the Environmental Protection Agency and available on its website, “No data were located in the available literature that suggested that chromium-6 is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure.”

HSPH alum and president of the American Council of Science and Health Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan boycotted yesterday’s ceremony in protest of the award.

“I think it’s a travesty to give a scientific award to an environmental activist who has done absolutely nothing to promote public health in America,” Whelan said yesterday. “It’s a slap in the face to those of us in public health who are actually working on real public health problems.”

Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics Richard Wilson, who studies chemical carcinogens, also criticized the decision to give Brockovich the award.

“Political correctness at the Harvard School of Public Health has trumped scientific integrity, by supporting someone who appears to be looking after the common man and not for corporations,” he said. “No one has ever identified any cancers from chromium-6. You can claim it, but you can’t prove it.”

John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, a litigation oversight group endorsed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., sent a letter to Dean of HSPH Barry R. Bloom outlining his view that Brockovich-Ellis should not be honored with the award.

“It is really amazing and shocking that a school of public health would endorse medical junk science,” Sullivan said in an interview.

Bloom did not reply to the association’s letter, according to Sullivan.

In a statement released yesterday, Bloom said the award was meant to recognize individuals who have played “critical roles in the public health arena,” but he added that “these critical roles are not without their attendant scientific controversies.”

“There are always areas of causal uncertainty that take a long time to resolve, but there is often also an urgency to prevent harm and protect the health of people,” Bloom said. “The impetus from citizens and communities is necessary both to expose health problems and eventually to solve them.”

Also honored yesterday was Kenneth Olden, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the first African-American to head one of the branches of the National Institutes of Health.

The awards were presented at the closing dinner of a conference of HSPH’s Leadership Council, composed of alums, donors, professors, and HSPH affiliates.

HSPH communications director Robin Herman said that the award recipients were chosen in a “general process involving a lot of people at the school.”

The Julius B. Richmond award is named in honor of a professor emeritus at Harvard and former U.S. Surgeon General who was the first national director of the Head Start program. Previous recipients of the award include Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., for his health advocacy on Capitol Hill, and “Today Show” host Katie Couric for her work raising colon cancer awareness.

—Staff writer May Habib can be reached at habib@fas.harvard.edu.