We Want Hex Chrome Out of Our Drinking Water. Drinking Water Utilites Aren't So Sure.

Nod if you think your drinking water utility should focus on providing you with clean and safe tap water. Now nod if you think your drinking water utility shouldn’t delay efforts to keep cancer causing chemicals out of your tap water.

Still nodding? Too bad, because it looks like your drinking water utility doesn’t agree with you.

Hexavalent chromium (commonly referred to as “hex chrome” or “chromium-6”) is the chemical made famous in Julia Roberts’ movie about Erin Brockovich and her battle against PG&E. It has long been a known carcinogen if you breathe it. Now, the science shows that it also causes cancer if you eat it or drink it. This is a problem for the drinking water utilities because hex chrome is a widespread drinking water contaminant. Currently, there is no drinking water standard for hex chrome – only for total chromium, which consists of both carcinogenic hex chrome and much less toxic trivalent chrome (also called chromium-3).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to finalize its latest assessment of hex chrome, showing that it is a potent carcinogen. The chemical industry wants EPA to wait for the results of  industry-sponsored studies before finalizing the assessment. In fact, although it has not been completed, industry spokesmen already claim that the results will help industry make its case against EPA’s assessment. And, the wait for these data could be at least a year, maybe more.

If EPA does finalize its current assessment, it will probably also set a tap water standard for hex chrome. So the drinking water utilities' trade associations have jumped into this fight by siding with the chemical industry. They too want to stall the EPA’s assessment to give the chromium industry time to defend its chemical. Maybe they believe that if EPA weakens its assessment, then it won’t set a standard for drinking water.

California recently set a public health goal for hex chrome in drinking water that is 5000 times more protective than EPA’s current standard for total chromium. If EPA establishes a specific standard for hex chrome, utilities may have to upgrade their treatment facilities. Right now, existing treatment processes such as conventional treatment may be effective in removing  trivalent chromium, but not hex chrome.

Why are the drinking water utilities aligning themselves with the industry polluters who don't want to clean up the highly hazardous hexavalent form of chromium?

Whenever I go to drinking water meetings, I hear this saying that the only person who can kill an entire town is the guy in charge of the drinking water. It’s usually said to show that drinking water utilities take their responsibility to protect public health seriously. But in the case of hex chrome, the utilities appear to have lost their focus. Rather than siding with us and with public health, they are cozying up to the industry that wants to keep polluting our drinking water with this dangerous chemical. It’s time to remind our drinking water utilities that they should be protecting us, not the chemical industry.

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Read the letter we sent to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today to stay on schedule with finalizing their assessment.

My colleague Jen Sass has a great blog on this issue too. Check it out here.

Learn more about Hexavalent Chromium here.