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Senate Hearing Focuses on EWG's Chromium-6 Study

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

By Nils Bruzelius, EWG Executive Editor

WASHINGTON, DC - Environmental Working Group's recent national study that detected widespread drinking water contamination by carcinogenic chromium-6 was the subject of intense discussion this morning at a well-attended and sometimes contentious 2½-hour U.S. Senate hearing. (You can watch the webcast and read the majority and minority statements and witness testimonies here.)

"Keep on Doing What You're Doing" At the conclusion, EWG's work drew high praise from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, who told EWG President Ken Cook to "keep on doing what you're doing. I like what you're doing. I certainly welcome it. We can't stop the science or telling the truth to the American people."

In his testimony, Cook noted that the four water utilities that had so far followed up on EWG's findings by conducting and reporting their own tests for chromium-6 had all found it in their water in amounts similar to or even higher than those reported by EWG's researchers. "It's not a partisan issue, it's not a regional issue, it's an American issue," Cook told the senators.

Even Water Can be Partisan In a reflection of the partisan divisions in Congress, however, several Republican senators took issue with the EWG study, which detected the contaminant in single samples of drinking water from 31 of 35 cities tested. Leading the criticism was ranking member Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who charged that the EWG study was "biased and the conclusions skewed to fit a particular agenda."

Inhofe also repeated an inaccurate complaint made by some water utilities that EWG had refused to disclose the details of the methodology it used in testing for chromium-6, whose formal scientific name is hexavalent chromium. The truth is that a detailed account of the methods used in the study was included in the report from the moment it was published online on Dec. 20, 2010. EWG has released the zip codes where the samples were taken but not the names and addresses of the volunteers who took the water samples from their taps following strictly prescribed procedures.

Although the session was broadly titled an "Oversight Hearing on Public Health and Drinking Water Issues," not one of the six witnesses and nine senators who spoke failed to cite EWG's work.

EPA Announces It Will Regulate Perchlorate in Drinking Water Shortly before the hearing began, the Environmental Protection Agency made a significant announcement that it will formally address concerns about two other drinking water pollutants. One is perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel and explosives that has long been the focus of concern by EWG and others. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, the first witness, said the agency was reversing the agency's earlier decision under the administration of former President George W. Bush not to regulate the pollutant, which is known to disrupt the thyroid gland's production of hormones essential to the normal development of fetuses and infants.

"Between 5 and 17 million people may be served drinking water containing perchlorate," Jackson said.

 

The EPA has also begun a process to regulate a group of 16 drinking water contaminants, known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs, that are used as industrial solvents and can cause cancer, Jackson said.

What the Witnesses Said Linda S. Birnbaum, director of both the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, told the committee that chromium-6, the pollutant featured in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich," is "a known human carcinogen" when inhaled, based on both human and animal studies. In animal studies, she said, its potential to cause cancer had been shown in animals that drank water containing chromium-6 in amounts uncomfortably close to what "people might be drinking."

Some Republicans raised concerns that efforts to regulate these contaminants and chromium-6 would have "job-crushing" effects on business or utilities and impose unaffordable costs on utilities, but several Democrats responded that developing technologies to remove such contaminants has great potential to create jobs and new business.

Boxer has filed bills to set deadlines or EPA to set enforceable limits on both perchlorate and chromium-6 in drinking water. She struggled at times to keep the senators' questions focused on drinking water issues, fending off attempts by Inhofe and others to question Jackson about her agency's plans to regulate greenhouse gases and chemicals used in natural gas drilling.

The final witness, Dr. Thomas Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told the panel, "The current EPA standard [for chromium-6] is outdated and does not reflect the current science. There is little doubt that it is a carcinogen via oral exposure."

The recent evidence, he said, "coupled with the Environmental Working Group report of the widespread presence of chromium-6 in the nation's drinking water supplies indicate it is time to act to understand and reduce the population risks."

EWG agrees that it is time to act -- and is very pleased to see this forward movement on some of the drinking water issues we're working on.

[Thanks to Lindsay Talley for the hearing photo]

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