Hexavalent Chromium in Drinking Water: Welcome News from California2 min read

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Yesterday, the State of California took an important step toward protecting people from cancer-causing chromium in drinking water. After a decade of study, public review, meetings, and scientific analysis, the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) released a final Public Health Goal (PHG) for hexavalent chromium.

Anyone who saw the famous movie Erin Brockovich is familiar with ‘hex chrome’; it’s the known human carcinogen that polluted the town water supply in Hinkley, California and that resulted in the David vs. Goliath fight between sick community members (aided by Erin Brockovich), and PG&E, the polluter.

The real fight raged long after Hollywood moved on to other blockbusters. Polluters successfully spent the past decade using every political maneuver in the book to delay regulations on this chemical. A couple of years ago, they even unsuccessfully attempted to entirely eliminate the arm of Cal/EPA – the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) – that was doing the scientific calculations to set the chromium PHG. The repeated delays mean that California is now seven years past a legal deadline for setting a drinking water standard for this chemical.

The health-based level that was announced today – at 0.02 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water – is not only the most stringent scientific standard in the nation, it’s the only such benchmark in the nation. It’s really time for the federal government to move forward with their drinking water regulations for this cancer causing chemical.

Yesterday’s announcement doesn’t mean that the fight is over. Today’s health-based level is not a legally enforceable standard. In the next step, the California Department of Public Health must set an enforceable standard (known as a Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL). This standard must factor in health effects, feasibility of detection, clean-up technologies, and cost. Let’s hope this process doesn’t take another decade…

At the beginning of this year, I made a New Year’s resolution on my blog to do everything possible to get a health-protective, science-based, final PHG in place for this dangerous chemical in 2011. It’s great to be able to check one item off that list (thanks to hard work by lots of other people!) But we still need an enforceable standard to assure that everyone in California is protected, and we need a federal standard that will protect vulnerable infants and children nationwide. You’d think that when the science is this clear, the policy would follow, but instead, the fight rages on…

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Gina Solomon has been a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council for 12 years. Her blog can be found here.

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