Chromium 6 discovered in water supply of 200 million people

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The Environmental Working Group has discovered heavy traces of chromium 6 in drinking water across all 50 states. Up to 200 million U.S. citizens could be impacted by the presence of chromium 6, a highly carcinogenic metal.

Although 200 million citizens are potentially exposed to hazardous levels of this agent in their drinking water, up to 12,000 people could contract cancer from drinking the affected water, according to Dr. David Andrews and Bill Walker, co-authors of the report released by the EWG.

The highest concentration of chromium 6 in drinking water has been detected in Phoenix, Arizona. The contamination has spread to all states, yet the country still lacks a national standard for the presence of the chemical in its drinking water.

Chromium 6, a highly carcinogenic metal, has been discovered in the drinking water of 200 million Americans. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

In response to the dilemma, Andrews says that, “part of the reason behind writing this report is really highlighting how our regulatory system is broken—in its ability to incorporate new science, and its ability to publish and update drinking water standards.”

The National Toxicology Program has conducted several studies about the effects of various dosages of chromium 6 on lab rats. Those that received heavy doses of the metal developed cancerous tumors. Other studies have concluded that even in small doses, chromium 6 can lead to the development of cancer in human beings.

Although toxic upon consumption, the metal has been found to be of some use for a variety of needs, including chrome-plating and pigmentation processes. The electric power industry, however, releases the greatest amount of chromium 6 into the environment. Up to a quarter of the total amount of chromium 6 that is spread into the atmosphere comes from the electric power industry. The chemical can also be found in coal-burning power plants in high concentrations.

Studies have been orchestrated in all 50 states, most notably in California and Oklahoma. In California, Andrews and Walker indicated that the public health consumption level for drinking water with hints of chromium 6 should be 0.02 parts per billion.

After extensive and persistent lobbying by numerous industries, however, the limit rose by 500 times its original health level in California. In Oklahoma, the presence of chromium 6 in tap water has been tested to be over 600 times the permissible limit. The city of Oklahoma was ranked as the fourth worst city in the United States, as determined by concentration of the carcinogenic metal.

The report also stated that “neither New Jersey nor North Carolina has set a legal limit for chromium 6 in tap water. In both states, scientists’ health-based recommendations were at odds with the decisionwws of politically appointed regulators.”

These thorough tests, in addition to a petition in circulation, have prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to add chromium 6 to the list of chemicals that require government regulation prior to human consumption or direct involvement. The EPA is also required to review the list every five years for basic comprehensiveness. Since the ratification of the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act, amendments have been passed and the EPA added 81 potential contaminants to the list to be carefully monitored and regulated by industries and facilities.

Around 25 years ago, environmentalist and activist Erin Brockovich confronted a defense attorney for a major capital industry that had been accused of heavy pollution. The carcinogenic chemical chromium 6 had been found in the local tap water in Hinkley, California. The chemical had been linked to tumors and other defects at the time.

Despite the high concentration of chromium 6 found by the study and its strong associations with cancer, the EPA may still be at a loss regarding the contamination issue in the future. There are additional studies that are still being conducted by private industry-funded firms, such as ToxStrategies. According to the report, the firm “argues that the EPA’s current legal limit for total chromium—100 parts per billion, with no separate limit on chromium 6—is adequate to protect public health.”

The firm also makes the point that the EPA is wrong in directly linking excess chromium 6 to the development of cancer. ToxStrategies indicates that the number of cells increases dramatically, which has not yet been verified to lead directly to tumors of any kind.

If the EPA accepts the precedent that has been proposed by ToxStrategies, however, the levels of chromium 6 may remain unregulated in the nation’s water systems.