August 22, 2016
Twenty years have passed since environmental activist Erin Brockovich first discovered the presence of hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen, in the water supply in Hinkley, California.
Brockovich’s journey into environmental activism and the discovery of hexavalent chromium in the water supply was showcased in the popular biographical film “Erin Brockovich,” in which actress Julia Roberts plays the activist.
The toxin was introduced into the water supply by the chemical industry and is known to cause nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage and irritation to the skin and eyes, according to the National Toxicology Program.
Regulators slow to act to protect public from harmful chemical found in drinking water
Despite the massive awareness generated about the dangers of hexavalent chromium in Americans’ water supply, regulators in various U.S. states have been slow to act, doing little to protect the public from the chemical.
On Tuesday, August 16, Brockovich and the Environmental Working Group penned a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urging them to set a federal Maximum Contaminant Level for hexavalent chromium in drinking water.
“We write with deep concern about this continued delay. It is clear that the delay is sowing confusion among state and local regulators, utilities and the public about how much hexavalent chromium is safe in drinking water,” states the letter.
“This confusion is resulting many Americans’ exposure to unregulated levels of hexavalent chromium, which federal, state and independent scientists agree pose health hazards.”
The environmentalists say the government’s “regulation of hexavalent chromium is woefully inadequate” as federal standards for the chemical have not been updated in more than 25 years.
Standards for hexavalent chromium are extremely outdated, say environmentalists
In 1991, the federal government established a MCL for hexavalent chromium of 100 µg/L for total chromium. The letter states that “numerous studies and reviews” show this MCL is “far too high to protect human health.”
Research shows the carcinogen is dangerous to humans at “extremely low concentrations,” the environmentalists say.
“Yet the MCL is only for total chromium, not just hexavalent chromium. Hexavalent chromium or chromium-6 is far more toxic than trivalent chromium, or chromium-3, the other commonly occurring form of the chemical.”
“Setting an MCL maximum level for these two kinds of chromium combined conflates the individual risk of each chemical and allows for legally permissible hexavalent chromium levels that do not adequately protect public health.”
Hexavalent chromium harmful at low concentrations
The letter encourages the EPA to instead set an MCL that’s specific to hexavalent chromium in order to “more accurately reflect the actual level of risk posed” by the chemical.
California is the only state to implement “an enforceable legal limit” for the toxin in drinking water, which is set at 10 µg/L – ten times lower than the federal standard for total chromium.
The level set by California’s Public Health Goal (PHG), which aims to protect against cancer and other diseases caused by a lifetime of consuming harmful substances, is set even lower at 0.02 µg/L.
“The MCL at 10 µg/L is inadequate to protect public health, in light of the 500-fold gap between the PHG and the MCL.7 Nonetheless, the MCL provides unambiguous guidance to regulators, utilities and citizens on the legally acceptable level of hexavalent chromium in drinking water,” the letter states.
The letter comes on the heels of controversy in North Carolina over Gov. Pat McCrory’s effort to withdraw “do-not-drink” warnings for residents whose tap water is likely to be polluted with hexavalent chromium.
The chemical is believed to have entered people’s well water through processes at the nearby Duke Energy coal-burning facilities. The inadequate MCL set by the federal government places citizens at risk for harm in areas such as North Carolina where dangerous industrial byproducts such as coal ash routinely make its way into the water.