Cancer-causing chemical found in tap water of 31 US cities

Thursday, December 23, 2010

WASHINGTON - Hexavalent chromium, an industrial chemical and a major health risk highlighted in the movie “Erin Brockovich” in 2000, continues to haunt Americans. A national survey has found that the drinking water in 31 US cities is contaminated with the substance.

The award-winning film recounts the legal battle waged by residents of Hinkley, California who blamed exposure to the chemical for high rates of cancer and other diseases.

The Environmental Working Group, which released the findings Monday, found highest concentrations of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, in the drinking water in Norman, Okla., Honolulu and Riverside, California. The levels ranged from 12.9 parts per billion in Norman to 0.03 ppb in Cincinnati and Boston, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

Scientific and legal debate has raged over the risk posed by hexavalent chromium in drinking water since the 1990s, when the then-obscure legal file clerk Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts in the film, unearthed evidence that the substance had leaked from a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) natural-gas plant into the groundwater in Hinkley.

Residents sued, and in 1996 PG&E paid a $333 million settlement to about 600 people who blamed exposure to the chromium 6 for high rates of cancer and other diseases.

The average contamination in the cities surveyed was .18 ppb. That’s three times the ideal standard under consideration by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Rebecca Sutton, who oversaw the survey, acknowledges that there have been periodic alarms and lawsuits across the country over chromium 6 contamination.

“What this report indicates is that this problem may be more widespread, just at lower levels of concentration,” Sutton was quoted byt the Monitor as saying. “These are chronic exposures we’re concerned with. A little bit every day can involve increased risk.”

Some researchers have claimed that the risks are negligible when the substance is ingested. Still, in 2009, National Toxicology Program scientists reported that their research “clearly demonstrates” that the compound is a carcinogen, substance responsible for cancer, in drinking water.

Sam Delson, a spokesman for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, says his agency considers that finding conclusive.

Sutton hopes the survey will prompt more widespread checks for hexavalent chromium contamination, and new federal regulation.

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