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Sarah Janssen’s Blog

We Can't Wait Any Longer for Safe Drinking Water

Sarah Janssen

Posted August 14, 2012

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You can’t see it, smell it or taste it, but for too many Californians, a toxic chemical is in their drinking water. It’s called hexavalent chromium, or hex chrome, and though it was made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich,” over a decade ago, neither California nor the U.S. has an enforceable drinking water limit on this cancer causing chemical. 

Hopefully that’s about to change soon.

Today, NRDC along with the Environmental Working Group sued the California Department of Public Health to accelerate the long-overdue process of setting an enforceable standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water in California.  

 The California Legislature ordered the department to establish a standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water by 2004. Eight years after the legal deadline and over one year after the California EPA set a "Public Health Goal", the department has made no visible progress in implementing an enforceable hexavalent chromium standard, and says it could take several more years before it does.

Californians have long been aware of the dangers of hexavalent chromium. You might recall that Erin Brockovich waged a David and Goliath battle against Pacific Gas & Electric to help the sick and dying residents of Hinkley, California. Her work eventually led to the giant utility paying $333 million in damages in 1996 for polluting the tiny community’s drinking water and then covering it up. Her story became an award-winning film starring Julia Roberts four years later. Brockovich continues to fight hexavalent chromium contamination all around the country and is supporting this lawsuit. 

You may recall from the movie that hexavalent chromium causes cancer. Studies done at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences have shown that ingestion of hexavalent chromium, such as from contaminated water, has been linked to cancers of the oral cavity, stomach and intestinal tract. There is substantial evidence that hexavalent chromium can damage DNA, a known way that cancer starts.  

Additional non-cancer effects associated with exposure to hexavalent chromium compounds in human and animal studies include: liver toxicity; blood disorders, including anemia; male reproductive harm (reduced sperm counts); and ulceration and non-cancerous lesions of the stomach and small intestine. Hexavalent chromium can cross the placenta, exposing the fetus during vulnerable periods of development. 

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) and California EPA agree that there is sufficient concern that ingestion of hexavalent chromium-contaminated water causes cancer. Hexavalent chromium is listed on California’s Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer and reproductive harm.

Hexavalent chromium contamination is widespread in California. Our co-petitioner the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of official records from the California Department of Public Health’s water quality testing conducted between 2000 and 2011 revealed that about one-third of the more than 7,000 drinking water sources sampled were contaminated with hexavalent chromium at levels that exceed safe limits. These water sources impact an estimated 31 million Californians. 

How many millions of children and adults in California and across the country will continue to drink contaminated water before our state government acts?  

We can’t wait any longer to find out. NRDC and EWG believe too many lives are at risk. And hopefully if California sets a standard, the federal government also will move more quickly, too.

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Linda NottiAug 15 2012 12:17 PM

It only took 4 years to make the movie, but 16 years later, the state of CA has done nothing. Perhaps we could replace our gov't w/Hollywood to get things done.

Steven MitschAug 16 2012 04:18 AM

I live in Anaheim, CA. How would I know if this is in my water and can it be filtered out? This is terrifying.

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