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EPA Review: Chromium-6 in Drinking Water is Likely Carcinogenic

A glass of drinking water

Chromium-6 or hexavalent chromium is “likely to be carcinogenic” if consumed in drinking water, a draft review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded.

According to Bloomberg Law, the EPA has released its draft of the Integrated Risk Information System toxicological review of hexavalent chromium or chromium-6. The chemical, which is used in several industrial processes, was made famous by Erin Brockovich, who discovered that Pacific Gas and Electric Company dumped wastewater laced with chromium into ponds that polluted groundwater around Hinkley, California, in the 1950s and 1960s.

The latest findings show that it has the potential to cause severe health issues such as cancers if consumed in drinking water.

A 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts chronicled the story of Erin Brockovich and the class action lawsuit, which settled in 1996 for $336 million. Chromium-6 has been labeled the “Erin Brockovich chemical or carcinogen” because of the landmark class action case and settlement. Roberts’ powerful portrayal of Brockovich earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001.

Dangers of Hexavalent Chromium

Chromium-6 is a chemical that is used in several industries including pigment manufacturing and metal finishing. It is emitted into the air by burning fossil fuels. In addition to natural sources, hexavalent chromium enters drinking water sources through discharges of dye and paint pigments, wood preservatives, chrome plating wastes, and leaching from hazardous waste sites. Unsurprisingly, communities located near chromium waste disposal sites or chromium manufacturing and processing plants are at higher risk of toxic exposure.

It can easily contaminate water and is “likely to be carcinogenic to the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract,” the EPA concluded in its review. Currently, the EPA’s standard is a maximum contaminant level of 100 parts per billion for chromium-6. But the upper limit of lifetime exposure for chromium-6 in drinking water is 0.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

The EPA’s draft review, once finalized, “will be the scientific underpinnings of EPA’s assessment of risks associated with exposure to chromium-6,” Bloomberg Law reports. Hexavalent chromium is already known to be carcinogenic if inhaled. But its effects when swallowed by humans were previously not as clear.

How Californians Are Affected

In January, researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA found that 371,000 Californians are drinking water that may contain high levels of hexavalent chromium or other toxic chemicals such as arsenic and nitrate. Researchers found disproportionate harm to communities of color and emphasized that the study results likely understated the number of people affected by unsafe drinking water. There are no federal rules that currently limit hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

Government scientists in California and other states have said even extraordinarily low levels of hexavalent chromium can cause cancer in people. A scientific analysis showed that exposure in water suggests chromium-6 may cause stomach cancer. Inhaling chromium particles may cause lung cancer. Ingestion via tap water is linked to stomach cancer, liver damage, reproductive issues, and harm to children’s brain development.

In March 2022, the California Water Resources Control Board’s Drinking Water Program (or DWP) announced a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion for hexavalent chromium in water, a long-awaited standard. At 10 parts per billion or ppb, which is 500 times the state’s public health goal, the limit falls short of what is needed to protect people from the threat of chromium-6, according to public health and safety advocates.

According to a report in CalMatters, state data shows that 129 community drinking water systems serving more than 4.1 million people have reported hexavalent chromium levels above the proposed standard. In addition, 51 systems serving institutions and businesses, including 11 schools, and three water wholesalers exceeded the proposed limit, CalMatters reports.

The highest level reported by the state is in Ventura County, where one drinking water well was reported with 173 parts per billion. Latino communities and those with larger populations of other people of color are more likely to have drinking water with average levels of hexavalent chromium above 5 ppb, according to the UCLA study.

What to Do If You Have Been Affected

Corporations and industries have a responsibility to dispose of chemical and toxic waste in a safe manner. However, it has been common for corporations and industries to dispose of such waste in an unsafe and stealthy manner putting communities and people’s health and even lives in grave danger. This is unacceptable.

If you have suffered adverse health effects or are coping with a loved one who is suffering from cancer or other health issues because of suspected toxic hexavalent chromium exposure or to other chemicals, it is crucial that you contact an experienced California toxic exposure lawyer who may be able to help you evaluate your legal options.

You may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit or join other affected community members in a class action lawsuit. Affected individuals and their families may be able to seek compensation for damages including medical expenses, lost income, hospitalization, permanent injuries, disabilities, loss of life’s enjoyment, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.

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