Controversial contaminant widespread in public drinking water, including the Richmond area, report says
by Robert Zullo, originally posted on September 20, 2016
A report released today by an environmental research and advocacy group found concentrations of hexavalent chromium, a potential carcinogen, in the public drinking water systems of 200 million Americans in every state, including the utilities that serve Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico.
The local concentrations of the metal, dubbed the “Erin Brockovich chemical” for the former paralegal who became famous for her work on behalf of residents in Hinkley, Calif., where groundwater was contaminated by a utility company, are well below the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for total chromium of 100 parts per billion, the nationwide enforcement standard.
They are also below the only state-level standard in the nation: California’s maximum of 10 parts per billion. A single part per billion is roughly equivalent to a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, the report says.
But the report by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group points to a two-year study by the National Toxicology Program published in 2008 that found drinking water with hexavalent chromium caused cancer in laboratory rats and mice. The metal, which occurs naturally but is often associated with industrial pollution from steelmaking, chrome-plating, coal ash and other sources, has long been recognized as a carcinogen when inhaled.
“In 2010, scientists at the respected and influential California Office of Health Hazard Assessment concluded that ingestion of tiny amounts of chromium-6 can cause cancer in people, a conclusion affirmed by state scientists in New Jersey and North Carolina,” the report says.
In California, a non-enforceable “public health goal” of 0.02 parts per billion was set, “the level that would pose negligible risk over a lifetime of consumption,” the report says. “But in 2014, after aggressive lobbying by industry and water utilities, the state regulators adopted a legal limit 500 times the public health goal.”
The report — which warns that if left untreated, the contamination could cause an estimated 12,000 additional cancer cases — uses data gathered by the EPA from 2013 to 2015 from public utilities that took more than 60,000 drinking water samples and found hexavalent chromium in 75 percent.
“This is the first time anyone has ever tested this extensively for chromium-6,” said Bill Walker, the Environmental Working Group’s managing editor and a co-author of the report.
In the Richmond area, the highest average concentration observed was in the city, where it was 0.3 parts per billion. A spokeswoman for the city Department of Public Utilities could not be reached for comment Monday. Hanover’s average concentration was 0.2 parts per billion; Henrico’s was 0.19 parts per billion; and Chesterfield’s was 0.09 parts per billion.
Utility officials from all three counties said their water met all applicable standards.
“I would say this should give our customers reassurance, that California has set the only and highest level for hexavalent chromium and we are well under their limit,” said Arthur Petrini, Henrico’s director of public utilities.
George Hayes, Chesterfield’s director of utilities, said the county has never exceeded a Safe Drinking Water Act primary maximum contaminant level.
“The current treatment technologies available are seeking to decrease levels to less than 1 ppb, a level that all our three current water sources currently achieve,” Hayes said.
Steven Herzog, Hanover’s director of public utilities, pointed to a figure in the June 2013 journal of the American Water Works Association, which estimated that the costs to meet California’s standard would range from $550 million to $5.1 billion nationally.
“With enough money and resources, you can treat water to any level you want,” Petrini said. “The question is: At what level is money spent wisely to ensure public health versus just to meet a standard?”
The Environmental Working Group, which also was the author of a 2010 report that found hexavalent chromium in the tap water of 31 cities, says it hopes to prod the EPA into action after being “stalled by a chemical industry challenge.” The agency has been weighing a decision on a new hexavalent chromium-specific maximum contaminant level for at least six years.
“The test results on the EPA’s website are hard to find and even harder to understand,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group and a co-author of the report. “So we compiled and sorted the data, and we found that the scope of the contamination is startling. It’s long past time for the EPA to take action to protect Americans from chromium-6.”
The EPA’s maximum contaminant level of 100 parts per billion was set in 1991 based on “potential adverse dermatological effects over many years, such as allergic dermatitis (skin reactions),” not potential health risks from ingestion.
“It hasn’t caught up to 25 years of research into the harmful health effects of chrome-6 in water, including cancer and lung damage,” Walker said.
Several requests to interview an official at the EPA on the status of the review have been unsuccessful over the past month. The agency said in a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Monday that it is “actively working on the development of the Integrated Risk Information System assessment of hexavalent chromium, which will include a comprehensive evaluation of potential health effects associated with hexavalent chromium and EPA expects that the draft IRIS assessment will be released for public comment in 2017.”
The agency says that prior to regulating a contaminant, it must find that the contaminant meets three criteria: that it “may have an adverse effect on the health of persons; is known to occur or there is a substantial likelihood that the contaminant will occur in public water systems with a frequency and at levels of public health concern; and in the sole judgment of the EPA administrator, the regulation of the contaminant presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reductions for persons served by public water systems.”
Action on establishing a risk level and a national standard would help eliminate debates like the one that has raged in North Carolina, where state officials issued hundreds of “do not drink” letters to residents near coal ash sites whose wells showed concentrations above 0.07 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium and other contaminants, which critics called an impossibly low standard. The state later rescinded many of the letters, telling residents their water was as safe as most public water systems, igniting another controversy that has led to the resignation of Megan Davies, the state epidemiologist.
Hexavalent chromium also has popped up in tests of private drinking water wells near coal ash ponds that Dominion Virginia Power is in the process of closing in Bremo Bluff and Dumfries.
Laurie McNeill, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Utah State University who has spent 14 years researching issues surrounding hexavalent chromium in public drinking water, called the Environmental Working Group report “a bit overblown” but said the EPA should finish its review to provide some clarity.
“As long as it’s below 10 parts per billion, it’s in compliance with what the state of California would say. Right now, I think that’s our best guidance for what is an acceptable level of risk,” she said.
Referencing the local concentrations in Richmond, she added that 0.3 parts per billion is a level she “would definitely not be worried about. … If you look at environmental regulation, California tends to be on the leading edge. It’s hard to imagine that their regulators dropped the ball on their analysis of chrome-6. I would be surprised if that was the case.”