Gulp! Cancer Causer Found in Tap Water from 89% of Cities Tested

How clean is your drinking water? A new report on carcinogens in tap water reveals serious flaws in how our tap water is monitored.

January 6, 2011

Some cities should take a close look at their public water, according to new research.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—According to a new report released just before the holidays, there could be an infamous Hollywood villain lurking in your supposedly clean drinking water. The report, released by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), revealed that 89 percent of city water supplies tested had detectable levels of the cancer-causing chemical chromium-6, the same chemical Pacific Gas & Electric Co. released into the water supply of Hinkley, CA, an action that ultimately resulted in a $333 million settlement to residents and inspired the movie Erin Brokovich. "This is the first national-scale testing of chromium-6," says EWG senior scientist David Andrews, PhD. "And it really highlights the need for more chromium-6 testing."


THE DETAILS: EWG drew water samples from 35 large U.S. cities and tested them for chromium-6, also called hexavalent chromium. Thirty-one of the samples showed detectable levels, and just 10 cities had levels that fell under California's proposed public health limit of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb). The cities with the highest levels were Norman, OK (12.9 ppb); Honolulu (2 ppb); Riverside, CA (1.69 ppb) Madison, WI (1.58 ppb); and San Jose, CA (1.34 ppb). (This past Tuesday, California revised its proposed limit downward to 0.02 ppb.)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently has no guidelines for chromium-6 in drinking water; they require only that water utilities test and keep total chromium levels under 100 ppb. But that figure is misleading, as it includes chromium-3, which our bodies need to regulate glucose metabolism.

The EPA was quick to respond to EWG's report. Two days after it was released, EPA administrator Linda Jackson met with 10 senators and said that the agency will work to see how serious and widespread chromium-6 contamination is in other areas of the country. Based on the results of their assessment, they'll revise their drinking-water regulations for the chemical. In the meantime, she added, the EPA will "issue guidance" to water utilities instructing them how to test for chromium-6 and will offer assistance to the communities that had the highest levels in EWG's study.

WHAT IT MEANS: Aside from California's proposed public health limit, there is no hard evidence of how much chromium-6 is bad, or how much one would need to be exposed to before harm occurs, says Andrews. "But we want to make sure that, for known carcinogens, we're at levels that are safe for long-term exposures."

The EPA's quick reaction indicates that the report has raised quite a few red flags among public health officials, he says. "We certainly applaud the EPA on their quick action and for establishing a comprehensive plan for nationwide testing," Andrews says, adding that California is currently the only state that tests specifically for chromium-6. "There really is a need for more comprehensive data collection."

Chromium-6 contamination usually occurs in areas with a lot of metal manufacturing (primarily stainless steel) and in areas with leather tanneries and dye factories (it's often used in pigments). Therefore, because the contamination can usually be pinned to a specific factory or industry, Andrews expects a good deal of pushback from industry when and if the EPA revises its chromium-6 drinking-water regulations. "One of the interesting aspects of this that quickly becomes apparent in setting a public-health goal and then setting a regulation limit, is that the standard that's set across the country is not necessarily the public health standard."

Chromium-6 isn't easily filtered out of tap water, but EWG has these suggestions for consumers:

• Buy a reverse-osmosis filter if you're worried. Reverse-osmosis filters are really the only kinds that can eliminate chromium-6 from tap water, Andrew says. But they can be expensive and wasteful; most waste about a gallon of water per gallon filtered. "This is much more of a national water-quality issue," he says, and it needs to be addressed at the regulatory level.

• Don't resort to bottled water. "We recommend that consumers still stick with tap water and not necessarily shift over to bottled water," says Andrews. "We don't have any indication that that will have lower levels."

• Find out what else is in your water. It's always a good idea to stay on top of other pollutants in your drinking water by reading the annual water-quality report, or "Consumer Confidence Report," your utility sends you. It may not give you a good sense of how much chromium-6 is coming out of your tap, but it will alert you to other unhealthy chemicals. Then you can find the right water filter to remove those offenders.

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