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State “Clean Up” Plan Could Leave 24 Million Californians Exposed to Potent Carcinogen

Leading Enviro Groups Call on Officials to Better Protect State’s Tap Water
Contact: 
(202) 667-6982
alex@ewg.org or Avinash Kar (NRDC) akar@nrdc.org
For Immediate Release: 
Friday, October 11, 2013

Oakland, Calif. – The State of California’s proposed drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, could leave roughly 24 million residents, or more than 60 percent of the state’s population, unprotected from the known carcinogen, according to a review of the proposal by Environmental Working Group, Clean Water Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and Integrated Resource Management.

Based on the state’s own data, the proposed standard, also called a maximum contaminant level or MCL, of 10 parts per billion (ppb) will ensure that more than 85 percent of the water sources known to contain hexavalent chromium in excess of 1 part per billion will not be treated.

While hexavalent chromium is most well known for its ability to cause cancer, the state’s own public health officials have highlighted other potential health risks such as liver toxicity at levels below the proposed standard. Yet the Department ignored these non-cancer health effects in its cost-benefit calculations for the proposed 10 ppb standard. This is just one of the major flaws in the proposed standard detailed in the groups’ official comments submitted to the California Department of Public Health.

“State health officials have put forth a proposal that will leave most California residents with potentially dangerous levels of the cancer-causing chemical in their drinking water,” said Renee Sharp, Director of Research for EWG and the head of the group’s California operations. “This standard falls short of an adequate limit to reduce the public’s exposure to elevated levels of this carcinogen and liver toxicant.”

“When you’re dealing with drinking water, safety and public health should come first,” said Avinash Kar, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Public Health Program. “The department justifies the proposed standard based on treatment costs but the costs of cancer can be devastating. Hexavalent chromium is known to cause cancer and is linked to liver damage and other health risks. The law requires the department to put public health first, and as it stands, the proposed standard would leave more than 85 percent of contaminated water sources untreated.”

“The Department of Public Health has based their proposed standard disproportionately on the cost of treatment” said Andria Ventura, Toxics Program Manager for Clean Water Action.  “The answer is not to accept carcinogens in our water.  The answer is to ensure that water systems have the resources to provide safe drinking water and to hold polluters accountable.  Otherwise we are simply passing the expense to the public in the form of medical expenses and human tragedy.”

"It already costs money to provide clean, safe water to Californians, so it's inappropriate to propose a thoroughly unprotective standard just because its treatment will cost water providers,” said Lenny Siegel, Executive Director of Mountain View-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight. “Instead, the state should be working to find ways to reduce toxic substances in our water cost-effectively."

“The outcries related to treatment costs associated with hexavalent chromium sound very similar to those heard a decade ago with the setting of the arsenic MCL; yet, the cost of treatment has met with market competition and systems across the nation are cost effectively treating for arsenic today,” said Bob Bowcock, with Integrated Resource Management, Inc. “Water utilities have been planning and preparing for the hexavalent chromium MCL for over ten years; in fact scores of California water treatment systems are already successfully treating hex-chrome contaminated water for much less than the doom and gloom presented by water utilities as if this was imposed on them by surprise,” Bowcock added.  

Hexavalent chromium, made famous by the 2000 feature film Erin Brockovich, is used for the production of stainless steel, textile dyes, wood preservation and leather tanning, and as an anti-corrosive agent, and contaminates drinking water. 

The California Department of Public Health has proposed a standard of 10 ppb that is 500 times higher than the California Public Health Goal of 0.02 ppb, which is the level of chromium-6 in tap water that state scientists have estimated to pose no significant health risk. 

“By proposing a standard that will ensure that more than 85 percent of the state’s contaminated water sources will not be treated, the Department has failed to fulfill its mission to protect public health,” wrote leaders from Environmental Working Group, Clean Water Action, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and Integrated Resource Management in a letter to Michael McKibben with the California Department of Public Health.

Ten of California’s most populous counties may be disproportionately impacted by the State’s proposed standard, according EWG analysis. These include:

County Name Population affected Number of water systems with hexavalent chromium detections between 1 and 10 ppb
Los Angeles 7,492,045 109
Riverside 1,978,938 38
San Bernardino 1,948,006 57
Orange 1,878,119 19
Santa Clara 1,707,277 23
Sacramento 1,371,635 25
Fresno 779,198 55
Kern 698,839 70
San Joaquin 634,623 76
Ventura 566,445 18

Chromium-6 has long been recognized as a potent carcinogen when inhaled, but there is now sufficient evidence, according the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, that it is also carcinogenic through oral exposure, most notably from drinking water supplies.

A final California standard was required by the state Legislature to be established by January of 2004, but state leaders failed to produce one.  Last year, EWG and National Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against the state for its inaction. On July 18, the California Superior Court of Alameda directed the state Department of Public Health to propose a standard by the end of August 2013.

On behalf of their tens of thousands of California members and supporters, the groups are calling on the Brown administration and the Department of Public Health to “abandon the [10μg/L] proposal and establish a new MCL that is as close as possible to the Public Health Goal and will be protective of the health of the millions of Californians that would otherwise be at risk from hexavalent chromium in their water.”