Chemical link to Erin Brockovich

ARGUABLY the most toxic substance found at the former Irish Steel site in Cork is chromium 6, a deadly chemical which became the focus of a multi-million dollar lawsuit in America and later the subject of an Oscar-winning film.

Chromium 6 is regarded as the second-most dangerous carcinogen known to mankind and among its possible health effects when inhaled are lung cancer, nasal cancer and liver and larynx inflammation.

Legal clerk Erin Brockovich assembled 650 plaintiffs for a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California in 1993. Actress Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the eponymous heroine in the film Erin Brockovich.

The civil case argued by Brockovich’s clients was that the PG&E plant was leaching chromium 6 into the southern California town of Hinkley’s water supply, resulting in dozens of medical conditions ranging from nosebleeds to breast cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, miscarriages and spinal deterioration.

The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million (€210m), the largest settlement ever in a direct action lawsuit in the US.

While it has long been known that chromium is carcinogenic when inhaled, drinking water laced with chromium is believed to be less toxic as it is broken down in the stomach into a different form of the chemical.

Some experts argued that the exposure levels to chromium 6 at Hinkley were too low to cause health effects, while others felt there were too many gaps in the data on chromium to dismiss the Hinkley residents’ case.

While science remains divided on the issue, healthcare professionals are in general agreement that the current data on chromium 6 are sufficient to justify strict legal limits on its concentration in water, and that neglect of these limits imposes a major health threat on the affected population.

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