Chromium-6 found in drinking water systems in 26 Colorado counties

September 21, 2016

chromium-6, water

chromium-6-drinking-water

Nearly 200 million Americans, including millions in Colorado, drink tap water that contains a toxin that can cause cancer even from minute exposures, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Chromium-6, a chemical compound that can cause liver damage, lung cancer, and reproductive and developmental problems, was found in 61 water systems in 26 Colorado counties. Seven out of 8 water samples in Glenwood Springs and all 12 samples in Aspen tested positive for chromium-6.

Click here to find your city and county: Interactive Map of Chromium-6 in Water Utilities in the Lower 48 States

The compound, also known as hexavalent chromium, is the pollutant that gained notoriety in the 2000 movie, Erin Brockovich. The film depicts the true story of the now infamous legal clerk who, through an investigation in 1993, discovered a link between chromium-6 in the water supply and an increase in the number of tumor and cancer cases throughout Hinkley, California. Test results showed Hinkley to have chromium-6 concentrations ranging from 0.2 to 2.69 ppb. Average concentrations in Glenwood Springs and Aspen were well below those levels.

A $333 million settlement, the largest in the country at the time, was levied against the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for contaminating Hinkley’s water supply. To date, the company has paid $315 million in claims to victims.

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In a written statement Tuesday, Brockovich said:

I should be shocked by the findings of EWG’s report, but I am not.

The American people and public health have been sidelined by the interests of corporations responsible for this contamination, and the blanket failure of government agencies at every level responsible for protecting the integrity of our drinking water. Whether it is chromium-6, PFOA or lead, the public is looking down the barrel of a serious water crisis across the country that has been building for decades due to corruption, complacency and utter incompetence by our elected and appointed leaders, and it will take a groundswell of collective outrage by voters to turn things around.

The fact that in the United States, the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world that more than 200 million Americans are potentially drinking water with elevated levels of a known human carcinogen is nothing short of an outrage.

While chromium-6 was repeatedly found in 61 drinking water systems across Colorado, the levels were below the current threshold of 10 parts per billion — the equivalent of 10 drops of water in an Olympic-sized pool — set by California. The federal limit is 100 parts per billion of combined chromium.

However, Environmental Working Group said the safe drinking water standard for chromium-6 is too far too high.

“The real point is that chromium-6 is one of many chemicals in our environment,” said Bill Walker, co-author of the report and managing editor of the EWG. “Americans are exposed to dozens if not hundreds of other cancer-causing chemicals every day in their drinking water, their consumer products and their foods. And what the best science of the last decade tells us is that these chemicals acting in combination with each other can be more dangerous than exposure to a single chemical.”

The group relied on a two-year study by the National Toxicology Program, released in 2008, that found drinking water containing minute amounts of chromium-6 caused cancer in laboratory rats and mice.

“In terms of cancer studies, that is the gold standard of animal studies,” said David Andrews, co-author of the report and a senior scientist with the EWG. He also pointed out a more recent 2014 study that found a higher incidence of stomach cancers in workers routinely exposed to chromium-6, as a significant source.

In 2010, scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment concluded that, based on animal studies, the ingestion of tiny amounts of chromium-6 can cause cancer in people. Scientists in New Jersey and North Carolina concurred.

As a result, California scientists set out to establish a public health goal of 0.02 ppb in tap water.

But in 2014, state regulators caved to lobbyists from the energy industry and water utilities, and instead adopted the 10 ppb limit, 500 times their original public health goal. Today it exists as the only enforceable level of chromium-6 in drinking water standard at the state or federal level.

In the meantime, the EPA began the first nationwide testing for chromium-6 with an order to local water utilities to collect more than 60,000 drinking water samples between 2013 and 2015. Chromium-6 was found in more than 75% of the samples.

For their purposes, EWG scientists used the public health goal of 0.02 ppb as a the standard for their analysis of the EPA’s test data.

Even though their new report notes that the scientists believe the 0.02 ppb level would pose only “negligible risk over a lifetime of consumption,” Walker and Andrews say there are serious individual risk factors that challenge that assumption. Exposure to very low levels at crucial periods during the development of a fetus, infant or child could cause “much more serious problems” than it does for an adult drinking a larger dose, Walker explained.

The EPA did not respond to the report’s content, though a representative said the agency is working on a health assessment of chromium-6 that will be released for public comment in 2017.

Andrews and Walker said that’s just more delay and more time wasted.

“The inability to complete health assessments is hindering health protective regulations,” Andrews said.

“When you find widespread evidence of contamination, do something about it. Don’t just study it to death,” Walker added. “We’re not trying to raise the alarm about a single chemical. We’re kind of using chromium-6 as a poster child for systemic failures of drinking water regulation.”

Read the report
‘Erin Brockovich’ Carcinogen in Tap Water of More than 200 Million Americans
By David Andrews, Senior Scientist, and Bill Walker, Managing Editor

Click here to find your city and county: Interactive Map of Chromium-6 in Water Utilities in the Lower 48 States

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