200 Million Americans Have ‘Erin Brockovich’ Carcinogen in Their Tap Water
Policy + Politics

200 Million Americans Have ‘Erin Brockovich’ Carcinogen in Their Tap Water

© Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

For more than a year, federal, state and local officials have struggled to properly respond to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination of the city’s drinking water has threatened the health of 8,000 children and forced residents to use bottled water to drink and bathe.  Even now, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are fighting over whether to include $100 million to assist that beleaguered community as part of a major year-end spending bill.

Lead contamination of municipal water systems, sadly, is a relatively widespread problem in this country and would require massive resources at the federal and local level to adequately address the problem. CNBC reported recently that data it obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that 41 states have reported higher-than-acceptable levels of lead in drinking water during the past three years.

Related: Outraged Americans Want Immediate Action on Flint Water Crisis

Now comes a troubling report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist research organization, that chromium-6, a carcinogenic chemical compound, has contaminated water supplies for more than 200 million Americans in all 50 states. The tests conducted by utilities across the country and supervised by the EPA found chromium-6 in almost 90 percent of the water systems sampled.

The study found that levels of chromium-6 are at or exceed 0.03 parts per billion in three-quarters of the samples that were tested between 2013 and 2015. Roughly seven million people received or consumed tap water with levels of the compound higher than the 10-parts-per-billion legal limit set by California— the only state that currently imposes a maximum contaminant level.

Arizona, California and Oklahoma had the highest average statewide levels, according to the report. Phoenix by far had the highest average level among major cities while Houston and St. Louis also registered comparatively high levels.

Hexavalent chromium or chromium-6 is a chemical compound commonly used in industry for a number of purposes, including electroplating and manufacturing stainless steel and textiles. Chromium-6 is also used as a coolant in power plant towers and is found in the ash of coal burned by utilities. While scientists may differ on the degree of public health risks that it poses, research has shown that exposure to small quantities of chromium-6 in drinking water can produce cancer in humans and animals.

Related: Congress Fumbles Again on Funding for the Flint Water Crisis

A two-year study released in 2008 by the National Toxicology Program found that drinking water with chromium-6 caused cancer in laboratory rats and mice. Subsequently, research scientists at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment concluded in 2011 that ingestion of even tiny amounts of chromium-6 could cause cancer in people. That finding was later confirmed by scientists in New Jersey and North Carolina, according to EWG. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) considers all chromium compounds to be “occupational carcinogens” that are closely connected with lung, nasal and sinus cancer, according to a government website.

The chemical industry has long opposed tough regulation of chromium-6, arguing that additional research was needed. The EPA has never set a specific limit on chromium-6 in drinking water, although the environmental agency has established a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion for all forms of chromium, which is a natural occurring element.

Environmental activists say a national standard for chromium-6 in drinking water is long overdue.

Related: After Flint, Here's How to Test Your Water for Lead

“The standoff is the latest round in a tug-of-war between scientists and advocates who want regulations based strictly on the chemical’s health hazards and industry, political and economic interests who want more relaxed rules based on the cost and feasibility of cleanup,” according to the EWG report. “If the industry challenge prevails, it will also extend the Environmental Protection Agency’s record, since the 1996 landmark amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, of failing to use its authority to set a national tap water safety standard for any previously unregulated chemical.”

If chromium-6 sounds familiar, that’s probably because of the notoriety it gained from the film "Erin Brockovich" released in 2000. That’s the movie in which an environmental crusader, played by actress Julia Roberts, confronted the lawyer of a power company that had polluted the tap water of  Hinkley, California, with chromium-6. She dared her to drink a glass of the water that she said was “brought in ‘specially for you folks.”

The lawyer responded: “I think this meeting is over.”

In a written statement earlier this week, Brockovich declared, "Whether it is chromium-6, PFOA [Perfluorooctanoic acid] or lead, the public is looking down the barrel of a serious water crisis across the country that has been building for decades," according to CNN. She blamed the public health crisis on "corruption, complacency and utter incompetence."