2012-04-27

Co.Exist

Erin Brockovich's New Map Tracks The Dangers Of Toxic Chemicals

The inspiration for the Julia Roberts movie continues to fight the good fight, making sure that toxic contamination and the diseases it causes stay in the public eye.

Erin Brockovich

Think of the name Erin Brockovich and you probably pull up a picture in your mind’s eye of the eponymous film--and more specifically, Julia Roberts defending the California town of Hinkley against its local utility, which poisoned nearby groundwater with toxic chemical compounds. But that film was based on real events, and a real Erin Brockovich actually exists. These days, you can see her in the film Last Call at the Oasis, a film from Participant Media (the company behind An Inconvenient Truth) that examines the magnitude of the global water crisis before us (it goes into limited release on May 4th). Co.Exist spoke to Brockovich about her role in the film and what she’s up to today.

Co.Exist: What inspired you to participate in this documentary?

Erin Brockovich: I’ve been working on water issues ever since the film Erin Brockovich came out. I didn’t know they were actually doing a documentary [on the topic], but director Jessica Yu and one of the executive producers said, "We’re doing a film on water issues, maybe we should talk to Erin Brockovich." I think it’s a great documentary, an eye opener, and one that I hope raises awareness.

Do you think our water crisis has gotten worse since Erin Brockovich came out [in 2000]?

It has absolutely gotten worse. When I began in Hinkley I guess I was naive too and thought it was just a one-off situation. This is happening in multiple places in state after state after state after state across the U.S. We have gotten complacent and agencies have failed.

Someone in Last Call at the Oasis comments that he flat-out thinks we’re screwed. What do you think?

I think if we continue to think there isn’t a problem or that the agencies will come rescue us, then yeah, maybe we’re screwed. But we can also be the solution to the problem. We can begin to be aware that there is a problem and change our water consumption. We can look at the water pollution we have and clean it up. Let’s get the private sector to begin to help us fight, and we could actually create jobs.

Have we become more solution driven when it comes to water issues?

We are more solution driven. With Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet, [water problems] are now at our doorstep. You’re not a moviegoer watching Erin Brockovich and saying "Oh, that could never be me." We are closer than ever to that social moment where all of us affected will begin to respond.

Is Last Call at the Oasis for a different audience than Erin Brockovich?

I remember when Erin Brockovich was coming out, I asked [director] Steven Soderbergh how he thought it would do, and he said, 'Erin, you never know. It depends on where people are at the time." It can be a daunting task for someone to see a documentary when they already think they can’t save the world and it will just be more bad news. But I think youth today want to do business differently and be more sustainable.

What are you up to these days?

I’m working with communities at a global level. Over the past 24 months, I’ve noticed a change in the trend of the tens of thousands of people who email me. It used to be that people would say, "We believe we have groundwater contamination or we have this funny green water, to now community after community reporting [multiple] children on their street with leukemia, 1,500 people in the neighborhood with glioblastoma brain tumors. So I’m producing an [environmental contamination and disease] map of the U.S. called The People’s Reporting Registry Map, and Google is going to power it.

I’m having concerns that we’re missing disease clusters because we don’t track people’s movements. A lot of times people are emailing me from all over the U.S. with a particular problem, and many of them are from the same locations. [With the map], we can collect this data and look and see if there’s a source.

So you want people to use the map to report both where they come from and where they currently live?

Yes. Facebook has stitched [these networks] back together. Say there’s a group of people that all graduated from the same school, and they might find out on Facebook what they all had in common was that they all had cancer. Was that high school on a Superfund site or a landfill? Then that’s a source that we need to look at. I’m hopeful that we’ll have the [map] up and out there in the next few months.

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