The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released a report showing that chromium-6, a carcinogenic chemical brought to light by environmental activist Erin Brockovich, is present in the tap water of millions of Americans. In 2010, EWG published an investigative report showing that chromium-6 was present in the drinking water of 31 cities. These findings led a Senate hearing, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ultimately ordered water utilities to test for chromium-6, a chemical that is currently unregulated by the agency.
According to the EPA report, more than 75 percent of 60,000 samples taken from 2013 to 2015 contained chromium-6. The group found that the water of 218 million Americans, more than two-thirds of the population, had levels higher than the 0.02 parts per billion (ppb) public health goal set by California scientists. This goal was established in an effort to protect the public from cancer and other health problems related to chromium-6 exposure.
California’s state legal limit for chromium-6 is 500 times the public health goal, at 10 ppb. EWG attributes this discrepancy to aggressive lobbying by industry and water utilities. Legal limits are supposed to try to meet public health goals with cost and technical feasibility in mind, but the group says the state’s Department of Public Health used a “flawed analysis that exaggerated the cost of treatment and undervalued the benefits of stricter regulation”. California is the only state to regulate chromium-6 so far.
EWG reports that 7 million Americans have tap water that exceeds the California limit of 10 ppb.
“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,” Brockovich commented in a statement. She said the situation can be attributed to “corruption, complacency and utter incompetence.”
For its report, the EWG analyzed EPA’s third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, under which the agency periodically gathers information on unregulated chemicals and considers the findings. Based on this, EWG found that in 1,370 counties (2 percent of water systems), the levels of chromium-6 exceeded California’s 10 ppb legal limit.
Oklahoma, Arizona and California had the highest average statewide levels and the greatest shares of detections exceeding California’s public health goal. Among major cities, the highest average level was in Phoenix where the level was 400 times the health goal. St. Louis County, Houston, Los Angeles and Suffolk County, NY also had high concentrations of chromium-6.
In 2008, the National Toxicology Program published a study showing that chromium-6 caused cancer in laboratory rats and mice. Study co-author David Andrews, who is a senior scientist with EWG, said “In terms of cancer studies, that is the gold standard of animal studies,” according to CNN.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand commented “EWG’s report is another wakeup call that we must take this issue seriously,” according to CNN. Gillibrand is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee; she recently introduced an amendment that would require all public water supplies to test for unregulated contaminants.