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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Erin Brockovich, a U.S. consumer health advocate whose life story was the basis for an Academy Award-winning film, urged senators Tuesday to pass a law to document disease clusters in the United States.
A disease cluster is an unusual number of health events, such as reports of cancer, grouped together in a time and location, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Brockovich, who came to prominence investigating the prevalence of cancer cases in Hinkley, California, said she has become an informal reporting agency for those who worry that something in their immediate environment is a health hazard.
"Thousands of Americans contact me every month asking for help and telling me about unexplained diseases in their neighborhood or on their streets," Brockovich told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
She offered a map of the United States and Canada she said she put together by plotting these calls geographically, showing calls from almost every U.S. state and several Canadian provinces.
"This is not a scientific sampling but simply a map of people who are reaching out to me for help because they are concerned that environmental pollution in their community has made them sick," Brockovich said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the committee, co-sponsored a bill meant to increase coordination, transparency and accountability when federal agencies address potential disease clusters.
Boxer said U.S. childhood cancer rates have increased by more than 20 percent from 1975 through 2007, and that while the exact causes is not always known, "two often-discussed factors are genetics and environmental causes."
The bill, also co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, is known as Trevor's Law, named for Trevor Schaefer, a 21-year old survivor of brain cancer from Boise, Idaho.
Schaefer, who testified at the Senate hearing, and his family have created a foundation that has been fighting for better investigations into the causes of cancer clusters.
A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Clusters Alliance reported 42 disease clusters in 13 U.S. states, showing incidence of numerous types of cancer, birth defects and other chronic illnesses.
Julia Roberts won the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Brockovich in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich," which focused on the advocate's work as a paralegal with residents of Hinkley.
In that case, 660 Hinkley residents sued the utility PG&E for damages from groundwater contaminated with the chemical hexavalent chromium. The plaintiffs received a $333 million settlement in 1997.
Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; editing by Anthony Boadle