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public health films - erin

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Duration: 130 minutes
Year: 2000
Key words: Environmental pollution and crime, legal action
Summary: Erin Brockovich finds a local electricity company have contaminated a neighbouring town's water supply leading to the poisoning of many residents. She works with others in a legal action against the company.

Degree of public health theme coverage: This is a drama that is roughly based on actual events. The major theme is about the life of Erin Brockovich but the movie is also partly about environmental health issues. These include:

  • The corporation which pollutes the ground water with a hazardous form of chromium (chromium 6) ie, it does not line waste ponds to prevent seepage.
  • The corporation tries to destroy evidence, lies to the local people, tries to buy out local places for a fabricated reason (without claiming any responsibility), pays for doctors to reassure (and possibly even to lie to) the victims, tries to settle out of court for a minimal sum, and there is a threatening phone call made to Erin.
  • The law is successfully used to force compensation and the corporation's practices are subsequently changed. (It is reported that this was the “largest direct-action lawsuit in US history”).
  • The difficulties of tracking a population and the importance of the temporal aspect of population studies. Many of the affected people had moved from the specific town where the exposure occurred, thus identifying them and seeing a pattern was more difficult for investigators.
  • The business influence on local government. The Water Information Office is shown as being prepared to block public access to records at the corporation's request.
  • The value of dedication and also good person skills (empathy) allows Erin to build community support for the legal action. Score=3/5

Sophistication of analysis of public health content: There is some depth to the environmental health issue. This depth covers how the issue arose and also the range of corporate and legal responses to it. There is information from a toxicologist and some of the legal argument is provided. There is a contrast with the toxic waste disaster of “Love Canal” – where the legal dispute is described as still continuing. The advantages of a judge only decision (compared to a jury) for achieving a relatively speedy resolution is also shown.

But public health officials are not mentioned at all which is a bit surprising given that there is such widespread illness within the local community. There are some possibly unrealistic bits eg, in a real law case it would not be Erin collecting water and other environmental samples, but rather an environmental health professional using careful protocols. Score=3/5

Potential for empowerment and use of advocacy: This movie is partly a case study of the successful use of the law to expose an environmental health issue and to force compensation for the victims. It shows Erin's skills and capabilities (curiosity, hard work, dedication, people skills, intelligence) that lead to success. But there is also team work with Ed Masry the key lawyer involved. Nevertheless, there are idiosyncratic aspects eg, Erin uses her sex appeal to gain access to records etc. Score=3/5

Persuasiveness of the movie: The movie is fairly persuasive given that it is based on real events. There are set backs and trade-offs made – that give the movie a realistic feel (eg, Erin struggles to balance being a solo parent with work demands). However, some of the emotional outbursts by Erin and her using her sex appeal might seem a little unrealistic. Score=4/5

Engagement and cinematic quality: The movie was engaging with good acting. Possibly the romantic and home life aspects of Erin's life might seem overplayed for some viewers. Score=4/5

Total score = 17/25

Questions for discussion:

  1. What was the range of corporate responses to this environmental health problem?
  2. Is the threat and pursuit of legal action a good way to address environmental health problems?

Other information:


Associate Professor Nick Wilson
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
PO Box 7343
Wellington South 6242
New Zealand

Tel: +64 4 385 5541 ext 6469
Fax: +64 4 389 5319

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