Even before the film Erin Brockovich depicted the true-life plight of a California town with poisoned water, state scientist John Morgan was calling claims of a cancer cluster there pure fiction.
For the past 18 years, the Loma Linda University professor, who also works as an epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health, has tenaciously tried to debunk the notion that families in the desert community of Hinkley were suffering from a high rate of cancer after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. dumped tons of a contaminant into an unlined wastewater pond.
Morgan has kept his research up to date and even today presents it at scientific conferences. His message is not subtle. At a conference in Maryland last year, he popped up one slide comparing Brockovich to a delusional Don Quixote and another mocking the Academy Awards for honoring the film “in spite of the absence of evidence of a cancer excess in Hinkley.”
Morgan doesn’t hide his disapproval of a recent ruling by the California Environmental Protection Agency that drinking hexavalent chromium, the rust inhibitor that PG&E dumped in Hinkley, can cause cancer. The agency based its ruling on rodent studies, but as Morgan says, “We’re not big rats.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached the same conclusion internally as California’s EPA — that drinking chromium causes cancer — but it faces powerful opposition from the chemical industry in making its ruling official. At stake is whether regulators will set stricter limits on how much chromium is allowed in drinking water. Tens of millions of Americans drink small amounts of chromium each day in their tap water.
But a review by the Center for Public Integrity found glaring weaknesses in Morgan’s analysis that challenge the validity of his findings. In his first study, he dismisses what others see as a genuine cancer cluster in Hinkley. In his latest analysis, he excludes people who were exposed to the worst contamination.
Morgan has done other questionable work. As an advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, which gets funding from the chemical industry, Morgan is featured on the group’s website, Riskometer.org. He claims that exposure to a number of toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens such as dioxins and hexavalent chromium, has killed no one from cancer in America.
Morgan stands by his research. He says he was dispelling a misconception fostered by the lawsuit and film that the entire community of Hinkley suffered from a high rate of cancer because of the pollution.