Cancer-causing pollutant made famous by Erin Brockovich found in NE Ohio drinking water

by James F. McCarty, originally posted on September 20, 2016


CLEVELAND, Ohio – Drinking water tainted with a cancer-causing toxin made famous by the environmental activist Erin Brockovich was found in all but one of the 30 water systems in Northeast Ohio, according to a report released today.

The Environmental Working Group, a health research and advocacy organization, said its report marked the first time widespread contamination by Chromium 6 had been documented in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans in every state in the U.S.

None of the levels of Chromium 6 found in the water tested exceeded California’s legal limit of 10 parts per billion. But many of the samples tested in Northeast Ohio and throughout the country exceeded the 0.02 parts per billion considered safe by public health scientists in California, New Jersey and North Carolina, the study found.

Of all the water systems in Northeast Ohio, only Streetsboro’s, which services a population of 13,347, tested negative for Chromium 6 in four tests in 2015, according to the study.

An interactive map of Chromium 6 test levels in Ohio and the entire country can be found here.

Lorain County’s water had the lowest amounts of Chromium 6 with an average of 0.0891 parts per billion, the report said.

The six water systems in Cuyahoga County averaged 0.108 parts per billion of Chromium 6 in 20 tests conducted from 2013-2015, and never exceeded 0.39 PPB.

Other Northeast Ohio water tests included:

  • Summit County (five water systems) 0.0757 PPB average, with a high of 1.4 PPB in Cuyahoga Falls in June 2015;
  • Medina County (four water systems) 0.131 PPB average, with a high of 0.350 in Northwest Medina County in November 2014;
  • Lorain County (seven water systems) 0.0891 PPB average, with a high of 0.20 PPB in Avon in June 2013;
  • Lake County (four water systems) 0.114 PPB average, with a high of 0.240 PPB at the Eastern Lake County facility in September 2014;
  • Portage County (four water systems) 0.312 average, with highs of 1.13 PPB and 1.0 PPB at two sites in Ravenna in August 2015.

Among the nation’s water systems serving more than 1 million customers, Cleveland’s water contained the 15th highest concentration of Chromium 6 with an average of 0.102 PPB, according to the study. Columbus was 9thhighest with 0.207 PPB. Phoenix had the highest amount in the country, by far, with 7.853 PPB.

Jason Wood, chief of public affairs at the Cleveland Water department, said he had not seen the report. But he noted that the city’s drinking water meets and exceeds all state and federal standards established by the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Ohio EPA.

“The safety of our customers is our top priority,” Wood said. “As such, we continuously monitor and test our raw and finished water to ensure that what we deliver is safe, quality water that meets and exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards.”

Chromium 6 is widely used in dyes, paints, inks, and plastics. It also is used in metal plating, stainless steel production, wood preservation, and textile manufacturing, and is contained in the ash from coal-burning power plants.

California is the only state with a standard for Chromium 6. The law was passed after Erin Brockovich won a $333 million settlement in 1996 on behalf of the 600 residents of Hinkley, Calif., which has the highest level of Chromium 6 in groundwater in the country. A movie based on the case was released in 2000.

Hinkley’s ground water contained concentrations as high as 580 PPB, more than 10 times California’s drinking water standard of 50 PPB. The national standard is 100 PPB.

“This is quite shocking, to be honest,” Brockovich told Newsweek. She has dealt with issues involving Chromium 6 for 25 years, and said she knew “it was always lurking around,” but she was unaware the problem was this widespread.

“It’s inexcusable that the government has done so little to protect us from this chemical that has been shown to cause cancer at even insanely low levels,” Brockovich told the Environmental Working Group.

In 2008, a two-year study by the National Toxicology Program found that drinking water with Chromium 6 caused cancer in laboratory rats and mice. In 2010, scientists in California, New Jersey and North Carolina concluded that drinking water with even tiny amounts of Chromium 6 could cause cancer, and they recommended public health goals of 0.02 parts per billion. Those were the only three states to pursue the reduced limits.

The 0.02 PPB “public health goal” is the level below which California’s state scientists believe there is no more than a one-in-a-million risk of a person developing cancer over their lifetime.

The U.S. EPA subsequently ordered local water companies to begin testing for Chromium 6. From 2013-2015, the utilities collected more than 60,000 samples, and found Chromium 6 in more than 75 percent of them. The Environmental Working Group used the data to compile its report.

Based largely on the new cancer findings, California and U.S. EPA officials are reevaluating what Chromium 6 concentrations should be considered safe in drinking water. California is expected to propose new health guidelines soon. But the Environmental Working Group fears the EPA may bow to pressure from industry and do nothing.

Cleaning up water contaminated with Chromium 6 will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the group says.

“But the answer to high costs is not allowing exposures at unsafe levels while pretending water is safe,” the group concluded. “Instead, the EPA and state regulators must set drinking water standards to protect the public … and Chromium 6 polluters must be held accountable and pay their shares of cleanup costs.”

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