Can you believe a California high school has suffered a shark attack? How so? These sharks wear suits. Their names: paralegal Erin Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry.
No, these aren't the crusaders for "The Little People" depicted in the film "Erin Brockovich."
The real Ed and Erin care for naught but profit and publicity.
The pair have announced plans to sue three oil companies, the city of Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hills school district. The plaintiffs, they say, will be graduates from the 1970s to the 1990s of Beverly Hills High who have suffered various cancers allegedly caused by fumes from an oil-drilling rig on campus.
They claim to have found extraordinarily high rates of Hodgkin's disease (lymph gland cancer), non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and thyroid cancer in these former students.
To muster support for her charge, Brockovich told a London newspaper that air samplings that she hired a firm to collect found incredibly high levels of toxins. "When they came back I said I can't believe this. So we went four, five, six times," she said. "And each time we were getting the same results."
Strangely, however, when the local air quality authority conducted its own tests it found no evidence of any unusually high toxic pollutant.
The alleged pollutants include toluene, n-hexane, methane and benzene. But neither of the first two have even the lowest EPA cancer classification. Methane gas is as natural and as common as burping. In fact along with decaying vegetation and termites, animal and human belching and flatulation are the prime sources.
"Methane is not murderous," says the University of Denver's Donald Stedman, a professor of atmospheric chemistry. "Besides," he told me, "those students emit more methane than they inhale."
That leaves benzene, a known human carcinogen. Yet by far its strongest connection to cancer is leukemia, which is not one of the cancers Brockovich and Masry named.
Moreover, if we are to believe in cancer being caused by people breathing in small amounts of leakage from a singe well over a four-year period, shouldn't we consider studies of workers who have absorbed vastly larger amounts for decades?
Judging by them, exposure each day keeps the doctor away.
For example, an 18-year examination of petroleum workers in Torrance, Calif., found the death rate was significantly lower than that of the general population, with 82 deaths where 100 would be expected. For cancer, it was 80 deaths instead of 100. There was no significant increase for any type cancer.
A 41-year study of Texas refinery works found 96 deaths from all causes and 86 from cancer where 100 would be expected.
A British study of about 45,000 oil refinery and petroleum distribution workers did find an excess of leukemia and of a rare lung cancer called mesothelioma, but this was only among workers with three or more decades of exposure. These were "the only findings that suggested the presence of an occupational cancer hazard," it said. And again, overall death rates were below normal.
So how to explain those cancers among graduates of Beverly Hills High? Simple. A third of all Americans eventually develop cancer, regardless of whether they attend schools within the prestigious 90210 ZIP code.
Brockovich and Masry haven't a clue as to what an extraordinary rate of cancer among these graduates is. Only a rigorous epidemiological study can establish that. Even if they did find what's called a "cluster," it would probably be meaningless.
From 1961 to 1983 the Centers for Disease Control investigated 108 cancer clusters and found no clear cause for any of them. So it stopped investigating.
According to the agency's Web site, "A suspected cluster is more likely to be a true cluster if it involves any of the following: a large number of cases of one type of cancer, rather than several different types. A rare type of cancer rather than a common type. A number of a certain type of cancer in age groups not usually affected by that cancer."
None apply here.
All three of the allegedly excessive cancers are not only common but are unusually common in the younger people. With Hodgkin's disease, the highest national incidence rate is among those ages 25-29. For thyroid cancer, the risk jumps four-fold between ages 15-19 and 35-39.
Brockovich and Masry are merely trying to repeat their performance in Hinkley, Calif. (the focus of the film), in which they also claimed there were extraordinary rates of disease and also had no evidence. Indeed, the state found Hinkley residents, like petroleum workers, had significantly fewer cancers than should be expected.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. He can be contacted via his Web site, www.fumento.com.