It has been a couple of decades since Erin Brockovich began a war against industrial polluters who let chromium-6 seep into a Hinkley, California water system poisoning consumers who developed cancer and other exposure-related diseases.
This week the Environmental Working Group released a detailed report along with the claim that the substance made familiar by Brockovich can be found in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans – some at levels exceeding public health standards. Using federal data the EWG mapped out locations in every state that detected the carcinogen in water samples taken in the years 2013 – 2015. Overall, EWG reported that 75 percent of samples examined were contaminated with some level of chromium-6.
Chromium-6 is an unregulated substance and sampling is not required by federal or state law. It is not a required part of a water provider’s annual consumer water quality report. Therefore, like C8 or PFOA (a contaminant made infamous by DuPont’s poisoning of Mid-Ohio Valley water supplies) testing for the substance happens only very intentionally. In this case, the EPA was trying to find out how widespread the contamination has become.
According to USEPA chromium is an odorless and tasteless metallic element found naturally in rocks, plants, soil, dust and animals. While Chromium-3 is an essential dietary element found in vegetables, fruits, meats and grains, Chromium-6 or hexavalent chromium occurs from the erosion of natural deposits and may also be produced by industrial processes.
“There are demonstrated instances of chromium being released to the environment by leakage, poor storage, or inadequate industrial waste disposal practices,” said USEPA.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the federal agency to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no harmful health effects are likely. These are called maximum contaminant level goals or MCLGs.
So, while the state of California has a health goal of 0.02 parts per billion, the legal limit set by the federal government is 10 parts per billion – or 500 times the California goal. When the agency last reviewed the health risks associated with chromium exposure in March 2010, it determined that it was not appropriate to revise the national drinking water regulation until further assessment could be performed. The maximum contaminant level for chromium was established in 1991 based on data indicating that continued exposure could result in allergic dermatitis. The National Toxicology Program subsequently found chromium-6 to be a human carcinogen if ingested or inhaled. Further human studies worldwide have linked chromium-6 to lung cancer, liver damage, reproductive problems, and developmental harm. The harm is greater for certain segments of the population including infants and children, people who take antacids and people with poorly functioning livers.
Before EPA makes any adjustments to the regulation, the agency will issue its final human health assessment for chromium-6. The final assessment will be considered in determining if a more stringent drinking water regulation is to be put into place.
In the Mid-Ohio Valley, it may seem like a double-whammy as many of the noted water systems are still coping with C8 exposure as the result of Teflon (and other) production at DuPont Washington Works.
Here is how our region stacks up by county. Not every water system was included in the sampling project. Results are specific to water systems that were included in the exploratory federal sampling program.
In Washington County, chromium-6 was detected in the City of Marietta water. Of four samples, all four detected the chemical in amounts ranging from 0.14 parts per billion to 0.18 parts per billion – still well below the federal limit but many times higher than California’s health goal.
The Little Hocking Water Association had only one detect out of four samples, which doesn’t indicate consistent contamination and could indicate an error or anomaly.
In Athens County, of eight samples taken none indicated the presence of chromium-6.
In Meigs County, of four samples drawn in the Tuppers Plains/Chester Water District, two of them indicated the presence of chromium-6 at 0.034 and 0.033 parts per billion.
In Mason County, West Virginia, all four samples indicated the presence of chromium-6 at 0.11 to 0.14 parts per billion.
In Wood County, West Virginia, of four samples drawn from the Parkersburg Utility Board, all four had levels of chromium-6 ranging from 0.51 to 0.71 parts per billion – the highest readings in the region and well below the federal limit but many times higher than California’s progressive health goal.
In Vienna, of twelve samples ten had levels of chromium-6 ranging from 0.031 to 0.18 parts per billion. There was no data available for surrounding West Virginia counties.
It is not possible to boil away the contaminant and most household systems will not filter chromium-6 out of the water. There is one pitcher on the market that claims to filter chromium-6, but it employs ion exchange which is not known to be terribly efficient. The most effective systems are based on reverse osmosis – a much more costly solution but one that removes many more contaminants than chromium-6. (Reverse osmosis is also the most effective means of removing C8 or PFOA from household drinking water.)
The American Chemistry Council calls the EWG report “alarmist” and claims the levels of chromium-6 in the water are too minute to be significant.
Brockovich is urging concerned individuals to sign an EWG petition demanding the government take action and set a lower federal regulation.
“Twenty years is far too long,” Brockovich said Wednesday. “Chromium-6 is a chronic industrial pollutant and industry is holding regulation hostage with threats, lies, corrupt science and lots of cash. Chromium-6 kills in small doses.”