Erin Brockovich successfully won her legal battle, but did her crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric actually save any lives?

The film “Erin Brockovich” dramatizes the story of the legal clerk that the film gets its name from, and how she helped spur the legal battle that ended with the largest settlement ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit. The case was settled in 1996 for $ 333 million.

The Back Story

The cause of her concerns was the presence of a chemical known as hexavalent chromium which was present in the drinking water. This was because the company was using the material to prevent oxidation in the machinery of a compressor station, used to keep the natural gas pipelines pressurized.

The compressor station featured a cooling tower which used water from ponds which were not lined. This means that the chromium was leaked into the ponds, where it then contaminated the groundwater in the town of Hinkley, California.

The hexavalent chromium was dissolved from the cooling towers and released into the ponds. Once it made its way into the groundwater, it contaminated an area about two miles long and a mile across.

Pacific Gas and Electric had told the people of Hinkley that there would be chromium in the groundwater, but that it should not be a cause for concern because the same substance is found in multivitamins. The substance found in multivitamins, and various fruits and vegetables, however, is trivalent chromium. Hexavalent chromium, on the other hand, is toxic.

At least, that's how the story is usually told.

Is Hexavalent Chromium Truly Toxic?

The threat posed by hexavalent chromium should not be understated. When it is inhaled, it can cause the nose, throat, and lungs to become irritated and damaged. Research shows that factories that produce hexavalent chromium have a higher incidence of cancer among their workers. In other words, it is a known human carcinogen.

It would be a mistake to say that Pacific Gas and Electric was not being reckless when they knowingly allowed a known human carcinogen to leak into the ground supply.

That said, the effects of the substance, when swallowed, may have been overstated during the case. While it is true that it can cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and it can cause the stomach and intestinal tract to be upset, it apparently does not contribute to cancer when it is swallowed.

According to information released by the EPA, hexavalent chromium is only carcinogenic when inhaled. When it is swallowed, the digestive system quickly breaks it down into trivalent chromium, which really is the same thing found in multivitamins. There is currently no evidence to suggest that it is carcinogenic when swallowed.

Interestingly, the California Cancer Registry released a study in 2010 showing that cancer occurrences in Hinkley were actually less than expected between 1988 and 2008.