Cynthia McFadden’s 1996 Report on Town Plagued With Contaminated Water
ABC’s Cynthia McFadden reports on a Calif. town plagued with contaminated water.
The movie “Erin Brockovich” launched an investigation into the Hexavalent Chromium contamination of a town’s water supply in Hinkley, California.
The Washington Post
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:02 AM
An environmental group that analyzed the drinking water in 35 cities across the United States, including Bethesda and Washington, found that most contained hexavalent chromium, a probable carcinogen that was made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich.”
The study, which will be released Monday by the Environmental Working Group, is the first nationwide analysis of hexavalent chromium in drinking water to be made public.
It comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to set a limit for hexavalent chromium in tap water. The agency is reviewing the chemical after the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, deemed it a “probable carcinogen” in 2008.
The federal government restricts the amount of “total chromium” in drinking water and requires water utilities to test for it, but that includes both trivalent chromium, a mineral that humans need to metabolize glucose, and hexavalent chromium, the metal that has caused cancer in laboratory animals.
Last year, California took the first step in limiting the amount of hexavalent chromium in drinking water by proposing a “public health goal” for safe levels of 0.06 parts per billion. If California does set a limit, it would be the first in the nation.
Hexavalent chromium was a commonly used industrial chemical until the early 1990s. It is still used in some industries, such as in chrome plating and the manufacturing of plastics and dyes. The chemical can also leach into groundwater from natural ores.
The new study found hexavalent chromium in the tap water of 31 out of 35 cities sampled. Of those, 25 had levels that exceeded the goal proposed in California.
The highest levels were found in Norman, Okla., where the water contained more than 200 times the California goal. Locally, Bethesda and Washington each had levels of 0.19 parts per billion, more than three times the California goal.
The cities were selected to be a mix of big and smaller communities and included places where local water companies had already detected high levels of “total chromium.”
“This chemical has been so widely used by so many industries across the U.S. that this doesn’t surprise me,” said Erin Brockovich, whose fight on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, Calif., against Pacific Gas & Electric became the subject of a 2000 film. In that case, PG&E was accused of leaking hexavalent chromium into the town’s groundwater for more than 30 years. The company paid $333 million in damages to more than 600 townspeople and pledged to clean up the contamination.
“Our municipal water supplies are in danger all over the U.S.,” Brockovich said. “This is a chemical that should be regulated.”
Max Costa, who chairs the department of environmental medicine at New York University’s School of Medicine and is an expert in hexavalent chromium, called the new findings “disturbing.”
“At this point, we should strive to not have any hexavalent chromium in drinking water” or at least limit the amounts to the level proposed by California, Costa wrote in an e-mail.
Hexavalent chromium has long been known to cause lung cancer when inhaled, but scientists only recently found evidence that it causes cancer in laboratory animals when ingested. It has been linked in animals to liver and kidney damage as well as leukemia, stomach cancer and other cancers.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, says the California goal is unrealistic because some water supplies have naturally occurring hexavalent chromium that is higher than .06 parts per billion.
In a written statement, the group’s senior director, Ann Mason, said that “even the most sophisticated analytical methods used by EPA are not able to detect the extremely low levels that California wants to establish.”
The group supports a “uniform, national standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water, based on sound science,” Mason wrote. “Research is underway to provide EPA with critical data that will allow for a more informed risk assessment of hexavalent chromium. This data will be complete by mid-2011. Given the potential impact on drinking water supplies, EPA should incorporate this data in its assessment.”
Brendan Gilfillan, an EPA spokesman, said that the agency was aware of the new study by the Environmental Working Group and that the findings will be considered as the agency reviews total chromium in drinking water, work that is expected to be completed next year.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said that water utilities across the country are resistant to the regulation.
“It’s not their fault. They didn’t cause the contamination. But if a limit is set, it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive for them to clean this up,” Cook said. “The problem in all of this is that we lose sight of the water drinkers, of the people at the end of the tap. There is tremendous push-back from polluters and from water utilities. The real focus has to be on public health.”
Laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group have detected hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich chemical,” in tap water from 31 of 35 American cities. The highest levels were in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif. In all, water samples from 25 cities contained the toxic metal at concentrations above the safe maximum recently proposed by California regulators.
The National Toxicology Program has concluded that hexavalent chromium (also called chromium-6) in drinking water shows “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity” in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of gastrointestinal tumors. In September 2010, a draft toxicological review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) similarly found that hexavalent chromium in tap water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
In 2009, California officials proposed setting a “public health goal” for hexavalent chromium in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb) to reduce cancer risk. This was the first step toward establishing a statewide enforceable limit. Despite mounting evidence of its toxic effects, the EPA has not set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in tap water nationally and does not require water utilities to test for it. In 25 cities where EWG’s testing detected chromium-6 — in the first publicly available national survey for the contaminant — it was found in concentrations exceeding California’s proposed maximum, in one case at a level more than 200 times higher.
At least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of it likely in the cancer-causing hexavalent form. Given the scope of exposure and the magnitude of the potential risk, EWG believes the EPA should move expeditiously to establish a legal limit for chromium-6 and require public water suppliers to test for it.
Tap water from 31 of 35 U.S. cities tested contains hexavalent chromium (or chromium-6), the carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich chemical,” according to laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG). The highest levels were detected in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif.
Despite mounting evidence of the contaminant’s toxic effects, including a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft toxicological review that classifies it as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” when consumed in drinking water, the agency has not set a legal limit for chromium-6 in tap water and does not require water utilities to test for it. Hexavalent chromium is commonly discharged from steel and pulp mills as well as metal-plating and leather-tanning facilities. It can also pollute water through erosion of soil and rock.
The National Toxicology Program has found that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of otherwise rare gastrointestinal tumors (NTP 2007, 2008). In response to this study and others, California officials last year proposed setting a public health goal for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb). This is the first step toward establishing a statewide enforceable limit (OEHHA 2009).
Levels of the carcinogen in 25 cities tested by EWG were higher than California’s proposed public health goal. Tap water from Norman, Okla. (population 90,000) contained more than 200 times California’s proposed safe limit.
Millions of Americans drink chromium-contaminated water
EWG’s investigation is the broadest publicly available survey of hexavalent chromium to date. The 31 cities with chromium-polluted tap water draw from utilities that collectively serve more than 26 million people. In California, the only state that requires testing for hexavalent chromium, water utilities have detected the compound in tap water supplied to more than 31 million people, according to an EWG analysis of data from the state water agency (EWG 2009).
TOP FIVE CHROMIUM-CONTAMINATED CITIES TESTED BY EWG
City City Population Hexavalent Chromium Contamination Level in Tap Water
Norman, Oklahoma 89,952 12.9 ppb
Honolulu, Hawaii 661,004 2.00 ppb
Riverside, California 280,832 1.69 ppb
Madison, Wisconsin 200,814 1.58 ppb
San Jose, California 979,000 1.34 ppb
EWG’s tests provide a one-time snapshot of chromium-6 levels in 35 cities. But chromium pollution is a continuous, ongoing problem, as shown by the annual water quality reports that utilities must produce under federal law. Over the years, nearly all of the 35 cities tested by EWG regularly report finding chromium (in the form of total chromium) in their water despite using far less sensitive testing methods than those used by EWG.
The total number of Americans drinking tap water contaminated with this compound is likely far higher than is indicated by EWG’s tests. At least 74 million people in nearly 7,000 communities drink tap water polluted with “total chromium,” which includes hexavalent and other forms of the metal, according to EWG’s 2009 analysis of water utility tests from 48,000 communities in 42 states (EWG 2009).
The EPA has set a legal limit in tap water for total chromium of 100 ppb to protect against “allergic dermatitis” (skin irritation or reactions). Measures of total chromium include the essential mineral trivalent chromium, which regulates glucose metabolism, as well as the cancer-causing hexavalent form. Preliminary EWG-commissioned water tests found that in most cases, the majority of the total chromium in water was in the hexavalent form, yet the EPA’s legal limit for total chromium is 1,700 times higher than California’s proposed public health goal for hexavalent chromium. This disparity could indicate significant cancer risk for communities drinking chromium-tainted tap water.
The EPA’s new analysis of hexavalent chromium toxicity, released in draft form in September 2010 (EPA 2010a), cites significant cancer concerns linked to exposure to the contaminant in drinking water. It highlights health effects documented in animal studies, including anemia and damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver.
Industry deception delayed protections
The plight of the cancer-stricken residents of Hinkley, Calif., who in 1996 won a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for contaminating their tap water with hexavalent chromium, was the basis of the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts.
Subsequently, a 2005 Wall Street Journal investigation and a separate EWG report based on court documents and depositions from a similar lawsuit in Kettleman City, Calif. revealed that PG&E had hired consultants to publish a fraudulent analysis of cancer mortality in Chinese villagers exposed to hexavalent chromium, in an attempt to disprove the link between the chemical and cancer. The study was published in the respected Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and scientists and regulators — including the EPA — cited the fraudulent article in research and safety assessments. The journal retracted the paper in 2006 in response to EWG’s request for corrective action.
California officials then conducted a rigorous re-assessment of the study data, finding a statistically significant increase in stomach cancer among the exposed. Their analysis is consistent with laboratory evidence from the National Toxicology Program and others showing that hexavalent chromium in tap water causes gastrointestinal tumors in multiple species.
Industry has sought for more than six years to delay state-mandated regulation of hexavalent chromium in tap water in California. Aerospace giant Honeywell International Inc. and others have stalled the adoption of the advisory public health goal by pressing for additional external scientific peer review. California’s Department of Public Health can neither set nor enforce a mandatory tap water standard for hexavalent chromium until the goal is finalized.
At least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of it likely in the form of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium. Given the scope of exposure and the magnitude of the potential risk, the EPA should move expeditiously to establish a legal limit for the chemical in tap water and require water utilities to test for it.
The state of California must establish a strong standard for hexavalent chromium in tap water immediately. A truly health-protective hexavalent chromium regulation will reduce the cancer risk for Californians and serve as a model for the nation. With an enforceable standard already six years past the statutory deadline and the health of millions of Californians at stake, the state cannot move too quickly.
To access the report with maps see the link below
Industry falsified key study of “Erin Brockovich chemical”
Chromium is a naturally occurring metal used in steel manufacturing, leather tanning, welding and the production of dyes, pigments and alloys. It is often used to plate metal surfaces and is a major component of pesticides used in pressure-treated lumber for outdoor decks, play sets and other structures (one form was banned in 2005). Chromium was also widely used as an anti-corrosive agent in industrial cooling towers until the federal government banned the practice in 1990 (EPA 2000). It is an essential component in making stainless steel, its most common use, and super-alloys (USGS 2010).
The toxic form of chromium is not regulated in tap water
Chromium has multiple forms, and the two most common have dramatically different consequences for human health. Trivalent chromium (chromium-3) is a nutrient essential to sugar and lipid metabolism, but hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) is a dangerous toxin. Since 1990, international health authorities have identified it as a known human carcinogen when inhaled (IARC 1990), and a growing body of evidence has linked hexavalent chromium in drinking water to stomach and gastrointestinal cancers.
In 1992, the EPA set the legal limit in tap water for total chromium — a mixture of hexavalent and trivalent chromium — at 100 ppb to protect against skin reactions known as “allergic dermatitis” (EPA 2010b). However, a safety standard that lumps levels of a toxic carcinogen with a nutrient necessary for health is like grouping arsenic and vitamin C.
Recent California Department of Public Health tests of drinking water detected hexavalent chromium in 2,208 of more than 7,000 water sources (CDPH 2009). A review of EWG’s tap water quality database indicates that more than 74 million Americans may be exposed to total chromium through tap water, and more than 13.7 million Californians may be exposed to hexavalent chromium (EWG 2009).
New evidence overturns claims that chromium-6 is harmless
Various conditions can cause trivalent chromium to change to hexavalent chromium and vice versa. The widely used tap water disinfectant chlorine, for instance, can cause trivalent to become hexavalent (Lai 2006). Highly acidic conditions can cause hexavalent to become trivalent. For years, scientists assumed that all hexavalent chromium was converted to trivalent by the stomach’s acidic environment, rendering it harmless.
It is now clear, however, that some of this toxic chemical can pass through the stomach unchanged and penetrate tissues and organs throughout the body (Costa 1997). Studies in both animals and people show that exposure to hexavalent chromium via drinking water leads to elevated chromium levels in tissues, particularly the gastrointestinal tract, blood, liver, kidneys and spleen, and in increased toxicity (Kerger 1996; Finley 1997; Anderson 2002; NTP 2008; EPA 2010a).
Industry deceit covered up cancer connection
Research on the effects of chromium-6 in drinking water has focused on increased cancer risk. More than 20 years ago, researchers found an increased risk of stomach cancer and a “significant excess of overall cancer mortality” among villagers in China’s Liaoning Province whose drinking water had been polluted by a chromium ore processing facility (Zhang 1987).
This research should have triggered a flurry of scientific and regulatory scrutiny, but the study was published in a Chinese-language medical journal, making it largely inaccessible to U.S. researchers and regulators. Ten years later, in April 1997, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) published a paper, purportedly by the same Chinese research team, that reversed the earlier conclusion. It said that the data from Liaoning Province “do not indicate an association of cancer mortality with exposure to [hexavalent chromium]-contaminated groundwater” (Zhang 1997).
Investigations by EWG and the Wall Street Journal (EWG 2005) revealed that ChemRisk, a consulting firm hired by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) to fight the Erin Brockovich lawsuit over contamination in Hinkley, Calif., had distorted data from the Chinese study and placed the falsified paper in a respected scientific journal in order to reverse the original conclusion linking hexavalent chromium to stomach cancer.
Exposé outed corrupt consultant
EWG’s review of documents and depositions from a Kettleman City, Calif. lawsuit against PG&E revealed that ChemRisk’s employees — with the knowledge of PG&E’s attorneys — had conducted their own analysis of the original Chinese data in 1995-97, deliberately excluding reports of cancer cases in the province that pointed to an association with hexavalent chromium. They then wrote and submitted their paper for publication without disclosing that they worked for ChemRisk or that PG&E had paid for the new “study.”
Kettleman City, like Hinkley, is home to a PG&E station that pumps natural gas from a Texas pipeline to California customers. Both facilities used hexavalent chromium to cool the natural gas and then dumped it into unlined ponds that allowed the contaminant to leach into groundwater.
In the Brockovich lawsuit, residents of Hinkley sued PG&E for polluting their tap water with hexavalent chromium — the basis for the Julia Roberts film released in 2000. PG&E paid $333 million to settle the Hinkley case before the falsified paper was published, but scientists and regulators — including the EPA — subsequently cited the paper in research and safety assessments. In response to EWG’s request for corrective action (EWG 2006), the journal retracted the paper in 2006, citing in particular the fact that “financial and intellectual input to the paper by outside parties was not disclosed” (Brandt-Rauf 2006). Also in 2006, PG&E settled with the Kettleman City victims of chromium-6 contamination for $335 million.
As part of its toxicological review, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s (California EPA) Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), charged with setting a public health goal for the contaminant in tap water, conducted a rigorous re-analysis of the Chinese data. That work once again demonstrated a statistically significant increase in stomach cancer among the hexavalent chromium-exposed villagers compared to Liaoning Province’s overall population (Beaumont 2008).
Laboratory studies bolster cancer link
Animal studies have provided additional evidence linking hexavalent chromium to cancer. A study by federal toxicologists on rats and mice revealed statistically significant, dose-related increases in tumors of the duodenum and small intestine in mice, and statistically significant increases in tumors of the oral cavity in rats (NTP 2008). Based on these data, the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) Board of Scientific Counselors concluded that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity (NTP 2007).
These results agree with those of an earlier study that was marred by a number of limitations, including the outbreak of a viral infection in the mice under study (Borneff 1968). Nevertheless, a thorough statistical analysis of these data that accounted for the limitations still found a significant increase in stomach tumors (OEHHA 2009).
The NTP findings led the US EPA to list hexavalent chromium as a priority for evaluation under its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which last reviewed the health concerns associated with this contaminant in 1998. In September 2010, the agency released a draft toxicological review, concluding that chromium-6 in drinking water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” (EPA 2010a). Unfortunately, the EPA has also cited its ongoing investigation as a reason to delay adopting a more health-protective federal limit for chromium in tap water (EPA 2009).
In contrast, California has moved ahead. California EPA scientists drew a clear conclusion: “The findings of available human, animal, genotoxic, and toxicokinetic studies all indicate that hexavalent chromium is a possible human carcinogen by the oral route” (OEHHA 2009). Dr. R. Gwiazda, a reviewer of the draft public health goal for chromium-6 in tap water, summed it up best: “Overall, the document convincingly demonstrates that indeed there is a relationship between exposure to [hexavalent chromium] via the oral route and the development of cancer in the gastrointestinal tract” (Gwiazda 2008).
Some people are especially vulnerable
Some individuals may be especially susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of chromium-6. Specifically, people with less acidic stomachs appear to have limited ability to convert hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium, exposing them to higher levels of the toxic form and putting them at greater risk.
A low-acid stomach can be caused by several widely used medications, such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors used to treat common disorders including gastroesophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcer disease and chronic gastritis. Other conditions that can inhibit stomach acid production include pernicious anemia, pancreatic tumors, infection with Helicobacter pylori (a common bacterium linked to ulcers), mucolipidosis type IV and some autoimmune diseases. People with pernicious anemia have also been found to absorb hexavalent chromium more readily (Donaldson 1966).
Fetuses, infants and children also have higher sensitivity to carcinogenic chemicals. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), children’s developing organ systems are more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposures, and children are less able than adults to detoxify and excrete chemicals (NAS 1993). A recent evaluation by US EPA scientists in response to the agency’s 2005 revised Cancer Guidelines noted that hexavalent chromium causes germ cell mutations and DNA deletions in developing embryos, indicating a need for age-dependent adjustment factors for risk assessments to account for the toxin’s increased damage in developing bodies (McCarroll 2010).
Chronic exposure to hexavalent chromium in tap water is likely to raise everyone’s risk of cancer, but the young and the medically impaired may be especially vulnerable. These susceptible subpopulations deserve special protections.
EPA slow to set drinking water limits for chromium-6
Despite growing recognition of hexavalent chromium’s carcinogenic potential, including EPA’s draft designation of it as a likely human carcinogen, the agency has taken no action to limit levels of this toxic compound in drinking water. The agency has left in place an inadequate standard for total chromium, set nearly 20 years ago, that does not distinguish between toxic hexavalent and nutritionally essential trivalent chromium and cites “allergic dermatitis” as the only relevant health concern.
The EPA has reviewed its standard for total chromium twice since setting it in 1992. In 2003, the agency determined that even though new research on chromium-6 indicated cause for concern, information gaps prevented establishment of a more protective standard (EPA 2003). Six years later, the EPA again delayed action on a stricter standard, this time because it had initiated an evaluation of hexavalent chromium via its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) (EPA 2009). The draft toxicological review released in September as part of this process identified exposure to hexavalent chromium in drinking water as likely to cause cancer to humans, and cited animal studies linking it to a variety of other health effects, including anemia and damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver (EPA 2010a).
Drinking water standards are drastically out-of-date
The EPA’s inaction is but one example of the agency’s lack of resolve in protecting Americans’ tap water. The agency has not set a new, enforceable drinking water standard for any contaminant since 2001, even though the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to assess the need for standards for at least five new chemicals every five years. Three-fourths of the current standards, including for total chromium, were set in 1991 and 1992 and have not been updated since.
Since 1996, the EPA has reviewed data on toxicity and water pollution for 138 chemicals, but in every case it declined to set a safety standard. EWG’s analysis of its tap water quality database showed that collectively these chemicals pollute drinking water used by more than 111 million Americans (EWG 2009).
The framework under which the EPA sets drinking water standards is outdated. For example, the agency is not required to set maximum legal limits for contaminants at levels that protect the health of children or to consider the heightened vulnerability of the fetus and newborns (Donohue 2002).
In addition, the EPA sets maximum legal limits for contaminants as if people are exposed to just one at a time. That’s not the reality — research shows that people carry hundreds of chemicals in their bodies at any given time. A growing number of studies also show that the risks add up when people are exposed to multiple chemicals that can act in tandem to cause harm — and that total risk can be greater than the sum of the parts (NRC 2008).
At long last, signs of progress
For the 114 contaminants that the EPA does regulate, EWG’s drinking water quality analysis found that water suppliers achieved 92 percent compliance with mandatory health standards, demonstrating that utilities can and do meet enforceable limits when they exist (EWG 2009). However, the EPA’s failure to develop meaningful standards for hexavalent chromium and scores of other contaminants leaves the public at risk.
Recently the federal government has begun to focus a critical eye on hexavalent chromium and other water contaminants. When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took office, she announced that protecting America’s drinking water would be one of seven agency priorities. In keeping with this goal, the EPA has announced plans to set a legal limit for perchlorate in tap water, which would make it the first new chemical to be regulated in drinking water in a decade. Meanwhile, the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act (H.R. 5820), introduced in the House of Representatives this summer, specifically lists hexavalent chromium as a priority chemical for safety evaluation.
EWG recommends that the EPA set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in drinking water as quickly as possible and require all water utilities to test for it. The EPA can speed the process by streamlining the IRIS assessment. We hope that Administrator Jackson’s leadership on this critical issue will reduce cancer risk for all Americans.