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California and Hawaii Lead the Way on Chromium-6; Some States Standing in the Way

Monday, August 8, 2011

On July 27, 2011, the state of California put in place a strong, first-in-the-nation, health-based safety goal for hexavalent chromium (or chromium-6), the "Erin Brockovich" chemical, in drinking water. This is an important step toward setting a long-overdue, mandatory limit for this contaminant.

Across the nation, water agencies have conducted hundreds of voluntary tests for this pollutant in response to EWG's startling discovery in 2010 that chromium-6 contamination is widespread in Americans' water supplies.

EPA calls for more testing, but some states aren't helping. When the Environmental Protection Agency, in its own response to EWG's findings, issued a guidance on chromium-6, it suggested that all public water utilities test for it. The EPA said,

"enhanced monitoring will enable public water systems to: better inform their consumers about the levels of chromium-6 in their drinking water, evaluate the degree to which other forms of chromium are transformed into chromium-6 in their drinking water and assess the degree to which existing treatment is affecting the levels of chromium-6."

Oddly, environmental agencies in some states have been an unexpected stumbling block in gathering information about the prevalence of this contaminant in U.S. tap water. Charged with enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act, these agencies have the option to collect and make public voluntary measurements of chromium-6 taken by local water utilities, but the agencies can also refuse the data altogether. Some have an open and transparent attitude that puts consumer information and safety first.

Others, however, have made a decision to deliberately ignore any information on chromium-6. By rejecting a role in the national effort to assess this threat to tap water quality, some state agencies may delay federal regulation of this cancer-causing contaminant. This is, to state the obvious, disheartening.

Some states are part of the solution A few forward-looking states are dealing with chromium-6 concerns directly:

  • California - The Drinking Water Program of California's Department of Public Health provides a summary of results from its long-standing chromium-6 testing program. In the past, water utilities in California used a test that couldn't measure chromium-6 levels below 1 part per billion, but they can now choose to use the more sensitive methodology outlined by the EPA. The information already collected in California will help the state set a reasonable, health-protective limit for chromium-6.
  • Hawaii - A leader in transparency and consumer information, the Safe Drinking Water Branch of Hawaii's Department of Health provides online results of drinking water tests conducted on the Big Island as well as Kauai, Maui and Oahu.
  • Illinois - The Drinking Water Division of Illinois' Environmental Protection Agency has crafted a statewide strategy for chromium-6 and encourages all community water supplies to test for the contaminant.
  • Wisconsin - The Bureau of Drinking Water and Ground Water of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources reports that any data provided by utilities will be included in its public database.

Some states turn their backs

The Drinking Water Branch of Georgia's Environmental Protection Division and the Division of Water of Kentucky's Department for Environmental Protection told EWG they do not collect information on chromium-6 from utilities.

The Water Quality Division of Oklahoma's Department of Environmental Quality and the Drinking Water Protection Program of Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality have no policies on what to do with chromium-6 data, though testing is underway in both states.

Each state's environmental agency is responsible for monitoring and enforcing tap water standards established by the EPA. Those states that do not collect the voluntary chromium-6 measurements by local water utilities, as suggested by EPA, may prevent federal regulators from obtaining an accurate picture of just how widespread this contaminant is. This information is crucial to establishing a sound, mandatory standard that protects all Americans - not just Californians - from the risks posed by this cancer-causing pollutant.

What's your state doing about chromium-6?

If only four states step up to the plate, there won't be enough data to support a national standard. So go ahead, call or email your state environmental agency (they're easy to find by searching for "state departments of natural resources" online) and ask them to join California, Hawaii, Illinois and Wisconsin in collecting this important information and making it available to consumers, scientists and regulators.

Leave a comment to let us know what you've learned.


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