Julia Roberts only plays good gals, right?

Five years ago, environmental activist Erin Brockovich was awarded the Harvard School of Public Health’s Julius B. Richmond Award — their highest honor for the promotion of public health — for her legal efforts to expose the undisclosed leaking of chromium (VI) (hexavalent chromium) by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) into the water supply of the California desert town of Hinkley.

Allegedly, this was the cause of a spike in cancer cases among the town’s residents. This purported poisoning of Hinkley’s inhabitants by a (supposedly) treacherous big corporation served as the basis for the inspirational hit movie of 2000, “Erin Brockovich”, which won Julia Roberts an Academy Award and brought riches and fame to Ms. Brockovich.

That motion picture was inspirational because it told one of those little gal triumphing over the big boys, David versus Goliath stories that so many people love. But what if it wasn’t true?

Fans of the film may wish to contemplate that possibility as a new survey conducted by California Cancer Registry epidemiologist Dr. John Morgan, an ACSH advisor, indicates that Hinkley has not experienced a disproportionately high incidence of cancer. From 1996 to 2008, 196 cancer cases were identified within the census tract that includes the town of Hinkley, actually below the 224 cases ordinarily expected given the area’s demographic characteristics. Dr. Morgan told the Los Angeles Times that, "In this preliminary assessment we only looked at cancer outcomes, not specific types of cancer. However, we did look at a dozen cancer types in earlier surveys of the same census tract for the years between 1988 and 1998. Overall, the results of those surveys were almost identical to the new findings, and none of the cancers represented a statistical excess."

Still, though it turns out that there’s no epidemiological data to support the whole Erin Brockovich story, the public relations debacle experienced by PG&E is prompting the company to spend millions more on buying up the town’s homes, which appear to be safe from the trace levels of chemicals it dumped many years ago.

Nor are Hinkley’s residents grateful for their potential windfall. Quite the opposite. Instead, they question the validity of the survey and even insinuate that Dr. Morgan and the government are in cahoots with PG&E to hinder the company’s plans to buy off their houses at above-market prices as a means of ending the controversy. Inhabitant Robert Morris, for example, told the Los Angeles Times, "I think it's interesting that this state survey is coming out at the same time PG&E is offering to buy homes."

“You know what I think is interesting?” asks ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. “That The New York Times failed to cover this story. If the survey showed that there was an increased risk of cancer in Hinkley, you’d find the headline on page A1. We’ve seen this over and over again: whenever there’s good news about health, The Times in particular, and many other media outlets, tend to bury it; but if there’s any bad news, it becomes a blaring headline.”

ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan now asks, “So should the Harvard School of Public Health withdraw its award to Erin Brockovich?”