Cancer Causing Chemical Found in Cities’ Tap Water

A new study has found a potential carcinogen—<"">hexavalent chromium—in tap water from 31 cities nationwide, prompting concerns about consumer risk and exposure reduction, said the Washington Post. Hexavalent chromium was the notorious chemical that was the focus of the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”

The film brought public awareness to potential adverse effects of hexavalent chromium and the lawsuit involving Hinkley, California residents and the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which was accused of leaking the carcinogen into groundwater for more than three decades, said the Washington Post. PG&E ultimately paid $333 million in damages in 1996 and promised to clean up the contamination.

Hexavalent chromium is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals according to work conducted by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, said the Washington Post. If inhaled, hexavalent chromium causes cancer in humans; however, in recent years, research has found that, when ingested, the chemical causes cancer in animals, the Washington Post pointed out. In 2007, the National Toxicology Program documented a noteworthy rise in tumors in rats and mice in their mouths and small intestine; significant because cancer is rarely seen in laboratory animals.

While basic water filters—Brita and PUR—do not remove the carcinogen, there are some reverse-osmosis systems meant for home use that can remove hexavalent chromium from water. Bottled water, by the way, is not always a safe option because it can be drawn from municipal water systems that contain the carcinogen, as well as other chemicals and contaminants, noted the Washington Post.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued analysis yesterday that is the first publicly released look at the carcinogen from a national standpoint, said the Washington Post. The EWG looked at tap water from 35 cities, finding hexavalent chromium in 31; 25 tested with levels higher than the 2009 California state goal.

Bethesda and Washington tested with levels of .19 parts per billion (ppm), which is over three times the California goal; however, the federal government has not set a limit for the chemical in drinking water, said the Washington Post. The government is now looking into possibly imposing restrictions.

California released a draft of a “public health goal” last year that put the safe level of hexavalent chromium in drinking water at 0.06 ppm. If set, the California limit will be the first in the country.

“This definitely raises the issue about a national drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium and why we don’t have one,” said Lynn Goldman, an epidemiologist and former top official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who is now the dean of the School of Public Health at George Washington University, quoted the Washington Post. “This is the very first signal that there might be a problem,” Goldman added.

Hexavalent chromium was a common industrial chemical until the early 1990s, but remains in use in some industries, said the Washington Post, such as in chrome plating and plastic and dye manufacturing, explained the Washington Post. Hexavalent chromium can leach into groundwater from natural ores.

In the European Union, hexavalent chromium in electronic equipment is, for the most part, prohibited by the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive.

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