Widespread Water Contamination Causes Concern

Report says millions ingesting chromium-6, a known carcinogen
    By Steve Rensberry 
  (RPC) - 12/26/2010 - The environmental and regulatory fallout from a recent report by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), showing widespread contamination of the toxic metal hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), continues to force the hand of government officials and others implicated in the.
   According to the study, available here, toxic chromium-6 levels were found in the tap water of 31 out of 35 metropolitan areas across the United States, used by an estimated 26 million people. And this was only a sampling.
   U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson met with a handful of senators on Dec. 22 to brief them on the agency's response.
   Present were senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Kirk (D-Ill.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Daniel Alaska (D-Ha.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon).
   So far, there appears to be little doubt that the EWG's latest report could well produce a firestorm of litigation and policy changes.
   "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 report says.
   Anderson said she herself is concerned about the presence of chromium-6 in drinking water, both as a mother and as head of the EPA, but that the EWG's report provided only a brief "snapshot" of the problem at one specific time. The agency intends to work both local and state officials to determine precisely how widespread the problem is, she said.
   "The science behind chromium-6 is evolving. EPA is already on a path toward identifying and addressing any potential health threats from excessive, long-term exposure with its new draft assessment released this past fall. This assessment still needs to be reviewed by independent scientists as an essential step toward tightening drinking water standards for chromium-6. Strong science and the law will continue to be the backbone of our decision-making at EPA. EPA takes this matter seriously and we will continue to do all that we can, using good science and the law, to protect people’s health and our environment,” Anderson said.
   The EPA currently requires testing for total chromium, consisting of both chromium-3 and the toxic chromium-6, but doesn't not determine the ratio. All water facilities in the U.S. are in compliance with "existing total chromium standards" the agency announcement says.
   Jackson summarized the agency's view and commitment in four points.
   1) While provocative, the EWG report is a self-described “snapshot” in time and does not provide a full, long-term picture of the prevalence of chromium-6 in our drinking water. The EPA will work with state and local officials to better determine how wide-spread and prevalent this contaminant is.
   2) Meanwhile, the EPA will issue guidance to all water systems on how to test for and sample drinking water specifically for chromium-6. This guidance will provide  EPA-approved methods and other technical information.
   3) The EPA will also offer technical expertise and assistance to the communities cited in the EWG study with the highest levels of chromium. This assistance will include providing technical experts to work with water system operators and engineers to ensure the latest testing and monitoring is being utilized.
   4) Once the EPA’s chromium-6 risk assessment is finalized, the agency will work quickly to determine if new standards need to be set. Based on the current draft assessment, which has yet to undergo scientific peer review, it is likely that the EPA will tighten drinking water standards to address the health risks posed by chromium-6.
   What is potentially as explosive as the EWG's reported discovery of contamination is what it says about the industry deception that delayed protection.
   "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," the EWG report says.
   The group pressed for immediate action from the EPA.
   "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."
   While current levels may meet existing EPA, those levels are drastically out of date, the EWG's report says.
   "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," it says.
   Current standards also do not take into account maximum legal levels for contaminants that could possible affect children, newborns or a fetus. Neither do existing threshholds take into account the possibility of exposure to multiple contaminants at the same time.
   Finally, it says: "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."
   The principle author of the EWG report was Rebecca Sutton, PhD. Editors were Jane Houlihan, Renee Sharp and Nils Bruzelius.
   Chromium, the EWG notes, is a natural substance used in a number of manufacturing processes, including steel manufacturing, welding, the plating of metal surfaces, in pesticides that are used in pressure-treated lumber for play sets and outdoor decks, and in the making of alloys, dyes and pigments. It was used widely as an anti-corrosive agent in industrial cooling towers until a 1990 ban. Its most common use is as an essential component in the making of stainless steel and super-alloys.