Tap water from 31 of 35 U.S. cities tested contains hexavalent chromium (or chromium-6), the carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich chemical,” according to laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG). The highest levels were detected in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif.
Despite mounting evidence of the contaminant’s toxic effects, including a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft toxicological review that classifies it as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” when consumed in drinking water, the agency has not set a legal limit for chromium-6 in tap water and does not require water utilities to test for it. Hexavalent chromium is commonly discharged from steel and pulp mills as well as metal-plating and leather-tanning facilities. It can also pollute water through erosion of soil and rock.
The National Toxicology Program has found that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of otherwise rare gastrointestinal tumors (NTP 2007, 2008). In response to this study and others, California officials last year proposed setting a public health goal for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb). This is the first step toward establishing a statewide enforceable limit (OEHHA 2009).
Levels of the carcinogen in 25 cities tested by EWG were higher than California’s proposed public health goal. Tap water from Norman, Okla. (population 90,000) contained more than 200 times California’s proposed safe limit.
Otherwise known as chromium 6, hexavalent chromium is a chemical that can lead to cancer, respiratory problems and other health issues. It does exist in our water supplies but usually at a low level, which is deemed “safe.”
The name Erin Brokovich should help ring a bell. In the early 1990’s, Brokovich made headlines for her work in the legal fight against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) when it was discovered that chromium 6 from PG&E’s pipeline in Hinkley, CA was contaminating drinking water, leading to serious medical issues in area residents. It was a landmark case, and ended in PG&E paying $333 million in damages to Hinkley residents.
Chromium 6 is back in the news after an Environmental Working Group (or EWG) released a report revealing the discovery of chromium 6 in the water of 31 cities across the United States. Norman, OK was found to have the highest level of chromium 6 out of the 25 cities whose water was tested.
Now, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both senators from California, are working on a bill that will have the Environmental Protection Agency set a legal limit for the amount of chromium 6 in water.