California Department of Public Health? Not really.

This Friday marks the end of the comment period for the public to weigh in on a proposed drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium – a dangerous chemical known to cause cancer that was made infamous in the film Erin Brockovich. Unfortunately, the proposal by the California Department of Public Health is not up to the task of protecting the health of millions of Californians.

In August, the department announced a proposed Maximum Contaminant Level – the maximum concentration of a chemical that is allowed in public drinking water systems – at 10 parts per billion. If implemented, this will result in California residents consuming drinking water that poses a significant risk of health impacts because the standard is 500 times greater than the state-set Public Health Goal of 0.02 μg/L. California law requires that a Public Health Goal be established before a standard may be set, and that the standard should be set as close as possible to that goal. The Public Health Goal was set at 0.02 parts per billion, a level that does not pose a significant health risk to people.

According to the department’s own calculations, the proposed standard would fail to clean up more than 85 percent of water sources contaminated with hexavalent chromium at levels that pose a health risk. Hexavalent chromium is a dangerous toxin. In addition to causing cancer, the chemical has been linked to liver and kidney damage, blood abnormalities, reproductive problems, and can potentially harm a developing fetus.

Almost 10 Years in the Making and Not Up to Snuff

Nearly 10 years after the California Legislature required the Department of Public Health to set a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, the problem still exists. The chemical is currently found at dangerous levels in the drinking water of millions of people. This is why, last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group sued the department for failing to act in a timely manner (see here and here). When the department finally proposed a drinking water standard in August, following a court order, NRDC expected it would truly address the problem.

But instead of putting safety and public health first, the department appears to have given greater priority to treatment costs.

While costs to water systems matter, and the Department of Public Health is allowed to take those costs into account, it has both inflated costs and underestimated the benefits of a stronger standard. More importantly, it has failed to prioritize public health as it is required to, and has failed to live up to its name.

What the Department of Public Health Should Be Doing

The department should be considering other options. For starters, it should set a stronger standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water. It should also develop a plan to help smaller and financially challenged water systems meet the standard through financial and technical assistance, and through facilitation of connections to larger water systems which can help the smaller ones scale up to reduce costs. The solution is not to pretend that drinking water is safe when it’s not; it is to set a truly health protective standard and help water systems meet that standard with all the tools at the department’s disposal.

How You Can Help

You can participate in the rulemaking process by sending a letter to the California Department of Public Health from NRDC’s Action Alert page or submitting written comments on the proposed regulation directly to the agency on its website.

NRDC too will be joining partner organizations to submit comments on the proposed standard urging the Department of Public Health to safeguard Californians from dangerous toxins in our drinking water and to set a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium that is first and foremost protective of public health.