California Finally Takes Leadership on Hexavalent Chromium in Drinking Water
Posted December 31, 2010
California is ringing in the new year with the announcement of a strong proposal for a health-based goal to protect drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Today Cal/EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced a draft Public Health Goal of 0.02 parts per billion in drinking water. This is an improvement over the prior draft, released more than a year ago, because it incorporates an extra safety factor to protect infants and children. Hexavalent chromium is a highly mutagenic and carcinogenic chemical that was made famous in the movie, Erin Brockovich, which documented the fight in the small town of Hinkley, California for safe drinking water. The real Erin Brockovich has continued her fight for water uncontaminated with “hex chrome” and she has made powerful statements in support of California leadership to set a water standard.
Actually, it’s a shocker that we’re entering 2011 without a state or national drinking water standard for this dangerous and widespread chemical. It’s also illegal. You see, in 2001 (the year after the Brockovich movie was released), the California legislature passed a law requiring the state to set an enforceable drinking water standard for hex chrome by 2005. Now, almost a decade after the law was passed, there is still no enforceable standard, and we are only part-way there with a draft “goal”.
The reasons for the delay are complicated and are continuing today. Hexavalent chromium has been known for decades to cause cancer. But somehow, since the cancers were in workers who inhaled the chemical, the polluting industries were able to argue that this chemical is a “selective” carcinogen. Their contention – with little evidence to support it - was that the chemical only causes cancer when it’s inhaled into the lungs, but is safe when ingested. The resulting scientific wrangling took years to sort out, and was only set to rest about 3 years ago when the National Toxicology Program released a major study of hexavalent chromium that conclusively proved that the chemical causes cancer in lab animals when it’s ingested in drinking water. Case closed, right? Not so fast. Now the polluters have pulled another of their stock arguments out of their playbook. At this point they’re arguing – again with little evidence of support - that although hex chrome may cause cancer when ingested, there’s a “threshold” below which it is perfectly safe. Cal/EPA’s OEHHA correctly rejected that argument, pointing out that any such hypothetical ‘threshold’ doesn’t make biological sense, is not supported by the evidence, and even if it existed, it wouldn’t apply to the most vulnerable, such as infants and children.
How widespread is this carcinogen in drinking water? Nobody really knows because there is no requirement to test for it. However, an independent investigation by the Environmental Working Group that was recently published, showed that levels of hex chrome in 31 out of 35 cities tested would exceed the California Public Health Goal that was released today. Three cities in California were tested – San Jose, Riverside, and Los Angeles – and all three contain hex chrome above the new health-based goal. This isn’t a reason for panic, because these levels of hex chrome only increase cancer risk over decades of consumption, but the fact remains that the clock is ticking for millions of water consumers. Until drinking water systems are required to address this problem, consumers are in limbo, and it’s expensive to buy a home water filter that can remove this chemical.
Just last week, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that EPA will "likely revise drinking water standards for chromium-6". That's a welcome announcement, since health protection shouldn't end at the borders of California. Members of the incoming Congress that have vowed to curtail EPA's authority to protect health and the environment would do well to reconsider, since Americans care about their drinking water and air quality, and about their children's health.
One of my New Year's resolutions is to do everything I can to help get the California drinking water standard for hex chrome finalized in 2011, and to get the federal EPA on a path to follow California's science-based leadership. I hope this is a resolution shared by others, including incoming political leaders....and you.
Learn more about Hexavalent Chromium here: http://www.nrdc.org/health/files/hexavalentChromium.pdf
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