Sunday, November 16, 2003

The tragedy of environmental contamination: what happens in the next Erin Brockovich movie? -  

Eric Umansky contends (in the current issue of the New Republic - if you don't subscribe a free trial is necessary to read the article) the Brockovich's (now Brockovich-Ellis) current case, and many other cases brought with her partner Ed Masry, is somewhere between sketchy and bogus.

If you believe Umansky, Brockovich-Ellis and Masry (I'm already tired of typing these names so hereafter B-E&M) have missed that good science doesn't necessarily make a dramatic or legally compelling story. In fact, once again as described by Umansky, the common themes in their work are small data sets and incomplete knowledge of the basic facts. Firstly, small data sets are awful (in the most recent B-E&M case the the data set seems to be one measurement which was, in fact, still below the relevant state limit) in assessing the public health effects of environmental contaminants because human exposure is strongly influenced by variability in sources (wells leak at rates which change in time) and variability in things like weather (e.g. many atmospheric contaminants can be dispersed by wind or washed out by rain). The second theme rears its ugly head because many manufactured chemicals are not known (particularly in small concentrations) to have any adverse effects in the environment. Which is to say, just because compound A has a name that sounds kind of similar to compound B (they're both letters) and compound A is known to cause cancer, it does not follow that compound B must also cause cancer.

To my mind the real problem with pursuing these sort of spurious class action claims for compensation for environmental contamination is less the individual claim but rather the climate of distrust it creates. If you think about environmental contamination in passing and you find that even the Hollywood sanctified B-E&M have been, more or less, making stuff up what do you think about the importance of environmental contamination in general? The answer is a resounding not much.

And that, I think, is the real tragedy.

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