California proposes new chromium-6 standards for drinking water

August 22nd, 2013 | by James Meier | Comments

California today (Thursday) announced a proposed safe drinking water standard for the cancer-causing chemical made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

A judge on July 31 ordered the state Department of Public Health to propose the standard for hexavalent chromium, or chomium-6, by the end of August.

It’s a complicated topic, but the proposal would essentially make the standard five times stricter than it is today.

Here’s how the Department of Public Health’s news release reads:

“The proposed regulations set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for chromium-6 in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb) and specifically regulate the hexavalent form of chromium. This is five times less than the current total chromium standard of 50 ppb, which includes both trivalent chromium (chromium-3) and chromium-6. The federal MCL for total chromium is 100 ppb. Chromium-3 is harmless and actually a required nutrient, while chromium-6 may pose a risk of cancer when ingested.”

Further, the news release says “Capital investments needed along with the ongoing costs of operations and maintenance are estimated to be $156 million annually for public water systems to comply with this new standard.”

The dangers of chromium-6 became widely known after the film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts, detailed the case of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. The utility was accused of leaking the contaminant into the groundwater of Hinckley, a small desert town, causing health problems.

A year later in 2001, the California Legislature directed public health agencies to set an enforceable drinking water standard for the chemical by 2004.

The process was delayed due to a scientific dispute over whether chromium-6 is carcinogenic when ingested in water. It has long been established that chromium-6 is carcinogenic when inhaled.

Federal scientists at the National Toxicology Program confirmed in 2007 that it’s also carcinogenic when ingested.

The California EPA then set a preliminary benchmark in creating a drinking water standard. But in 2010, the agency recommended even stricter limits after research showed that fetuses, infants and children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of the chemical. That goal was set last year at .02 parts of hexavalent chromium per billion parts of water.

There is no federal standard for chromium-6. Last year, the U.S. EPA released recommendations for enhanced monitoring of the chemical in public water systems and is conducting a review of chromium-6 to decide whether to set a nationwide standard.

Public comment on the proposal begins Friday on the website of the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).

In the meanwhile, learn all you’ve ever wanted to know about chromium-6 here.

Stay tuned to The Desert Sun today for more information on these proposed standards and the reaction to them from environmentalists, Coachella Valley water leaders and more.

 The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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