Special Report

Erin Crockovich Is Back

She’s the American Public Health Association’s equivalent of a Nobel Laureate.

By 12.13.04

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Pop quiz. For its annual convention the American Public Health Association (APHA) chose as its keynote speaker: (a) a top government health official; (b) a Nobel Laureate scientist; or (c) an activist and shark assistant who's 20 percent silicone and 80 percent hot air.

The answer, unfortunately, was "c" -- paralegal Erin Brockovich. According to the APHA, she discussed "her research and groundbreaking work in the area of industrial environmental negligence, its devastating effects on the public's health, and her continued pursuit for justice for those who have been harmed."

In fact, as I have been writing for four years, Enhanced Erin pursues only that which leads to fame or fortune. Thus in the Hinkley, California lawsuit (falsely represented in her eponymous film) that made her both celebrated and rich, there never was evidence of any excess illness.

Now her firm is suing Beverly Hills High School and practically every oil company in existence, claiming fumes from a rig on campus have caused a cancer epidemic among former students. "These statistics are 20 times higher than the national average for these specific cancers," Brockovich told a credulous media. But a University of Southern California study found no abnormal cancer rate among the alumni and after a contempt of court threat, Brockovich's firm admitted the "20 times" figure was fabricated.

No matter, for that's exactly what the APHA finds truly sexy about Brockovich -- her attacks on corporate America. You might expect that from a group that hosts a "Peace Caucus" and a "Socialist Caucus." In fact, the only time I've ever seen a person actually reading the Communist Party USA newspaper was at an APHA meeting -- where I saw several.

One major target at the convention was pesticide use. Among the sessions:

• "Healthy hospitals: Controlling Pests without Harmful Pesticides," based on promulgations by the extremist groups Health Care Without Harm and Beyond Pesticides.

• "National Prevalence of Chemical Hypersensitivity and the Medical Diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities." (This might be interesting if the disorder actually existed.)

• "Human Exposure to Pesticides and Fertilizers among Qat Producers and Consumers in Yemen." (No, that's not Yemen, Ohio. Apparently the APHA couldn't find enough problems in the U.S. And qat, by the way, is an amphetamine-like narcotic shrub.)

• And a personal favorite: Tobacco companies' attempts to manage public perception of tobacco pesticide risks.

Goodness, we wouldn't want to expose smokers to something that might be harmful!

But Kevin Marchman, executive director of the National Organization of African Americans in Housing (NOAAH), knows pesticides used in the U.S. are safe, and that foods grown with them should be chewed -- not eschewed. He said so in letters to both the APHA and the Congressional Black Caucus.

"While I'm sure Erin Brockovich is an expert in these areas," he told me sardonically, "we don't need the APHA to highlight activists who focus on issues of little importance to average Americans."

The NOAAH letters specifically noted APHA presentations that "focus on the 'wisdom' of avoiding pesticides by eating only organically-grown fruits and vegetables and encouraging pesticide-free methods to control cockroach allergens [a.k.a., bug poop] from contributing to children's asthma attacks."

"The APHA appears to be trying to scare people into eating organically-raised foods. But we know these aren't accessible to all, particularly those in the inner city," Marchman said. "They also cost more. To suggest you're harming your family by not buying these is wrong-headed. Conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables are abundant, safe and economical."

Organic food is meant for Birkenstock-wearing, loft-living yuppies with a need to show the world they can afford to pay extra for produce that's often inferior. It's not for low-income families who already lack the vitamins and other nutrients that they require and that fresh produce provides, even as they over-consume calories. "The 'buy organic' approach is sure to contribute to the fast-growing and real concern of obesity, especially in our children," says Marchman.

As to cockroaches, although environmentalists keep trying to blame air pollution for rising childhood asthma rates, air pollution levels have been dropping for decades.

Moreover, black children have as much as six times the rate of asthma deaths as white ones. Why would air pollution discriminate on the basis of race?

A 1997 landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine should have settled the issue. It found that over a third of inner-city children were allergic to roach droppings. Yet over half of their bedrooms "had high levels of cockroach allergen in dust." And guess what? You don't kill cockroaches with kindness; it takes chemicals.

"Because we do a lot of work with public housing agencies we know that pests, and particularly cockroaches, are a huge issue" says Marchman. "We know a healthy balance of house-cleaning and pesticides can help rid these communities of pests."

With its chemical-bashing obsession, the American Public Health Association has made itself a pest. Certainly it is an association, but at the convention it did little to live up to its name. For its speaker it got a D-cup; for concern over American public health it gets an F.

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About the Author

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a nationally syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.