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Water utilities, meet water drinkers.

Friday, April 15, 2011

By Ken Cook, EWG President

The Water Research Foundation, an offshoot of the American Water Works Association of water utilities, has accused Environmental Working Group of informing utility customers about the presence of chromium-6, a suspected carcinogen, in their tap water. "Reckless and irresponsible," the foundation claims.

Guilty as charged.

We believe the public has the right to know what contaminants may be swirling around in that glass of water served up at the kitchen table.

Last December, EWG tested tap water samples from 35 cities - and found chromium-6, also known as hexavalent chromium or the Erin Brockovich chemical, in 31 of them. Our report made national headlines. The Environmental Protection Agency promptly took steps to monitor the nation's water supply and said it would consider regulating the suspected carcinogen in drinking water.

Last week, EWG followed up by reporting that back in 2004, the Water Research Foundation, formerly the Awwa Research Foundation, had conducted a nationwide survey of untreated source water and found that chromium-6 was common in groundwater.

Why would we talk about a study that is more than seven years old?

Because the utilities didn't.

As far as we can determine, the utilities-supported study, involving data on 341 source water samples from 189 utilities in 41 states, was not released to the public generally nor to customers of the municipal water systems whose source waters were found to be tainted.

The Water Research Foundation did not deny our report. Instead, it fired off a statement complaining that we had spoken up about the issue. It accused EWG of "creating public fear and hysteria about drinking water" and suggesting "there is a massive conspiracy by water providers in a nationwide cover up."

Hysteria? Conspiracy? Not our words. We take the position that people have a right to know what's in their water. That's it.

As we said in last week's report:

The industry study, though clearly relevant to the current debate over what to do about chromium-6 in drinking water, has received scant attention. The Occurrence Survey of Boron and Hexavalent Chromium is sold to water utilities and their consultants, who pay four or five-figure subscription fees to the foundation, then a document fee of around $300 (it can now be bought online for $200 or more).

The industry report makes clear that utility officials have been well aware for some years of the engineering and financial problems posed by chromium-6 pollution. Should scientists and regulators concur that very small amounts of chromium-6 pose a risk to human health, the industry report says, removing the chemical presents "complex occurrence and treatment issues for the drinking water community."

The Water Research Foundation protested that there was "a major difference between detection of a substance in source water and what comes through the tap in people's homes" We agree. We chose to test tap water because we wanted to know about contamination that water drinkers are actually consuming.

The foundation's 2004 study similarly tracked chromium-6 levels through the water system - from source to tap - in about a dozen municipal water systems. The researchers wanted to find out if water treatment methods used by utilities removed chromium-6.

The answer was no.

On March 24, the Water Research Foundation announced that it would co-sponsor an existing project in Glendale, Calif. to "explore new technologies and processes to reduce chromium‐6 levels in drinking water." The study is scheduled for completion next March. We hope the foundation will disclose the results to the public. Americans have a right to know when their water is clean and, more importantly, when it is not.

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