California Proposes Nation’s First Limit on “Erin Brockovich” Chemical

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Oakland, CA -- After more than a decade of fighting an across-the-board industry campaign, the California government has finally announced proposed health guidelines for the deadly cancer-causing chemical hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6 first made famous by environmental health crusader Erin Brockovich.

The draft public health goal of 0.06 parts per billion announced today by California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is marked departure from the state’s current drinking water standard for total chromium of 50 parts per billion. This dramatic move reflects a new scientific consensus that chromium 6, also known as chrome-6, causes cancer when consumed in drinking water. Chrome six has long been considered an extremely potent carcinogen when inhaled.

The 0.06 ppb health guideline proposed by state scientists, if adopted by regulators, would reduce the risk of cancer caused by chrome 6 in drinking water to one in a million, the point at which the state considers the danger to public health to be minimal.

“For more than a decade, industry’s dirty tricks corrupted efforts to protect the people of California from this potent carcinogen, but today’s announcement may finally help us reach that goal,” Renee Sharp, Director of Environmental Working Group’s California office. “The Department of Public Health now must act quickly to set a health-protective drinking water standard for this dangerous chemical.”

California environmental officials will now solicit public comments and peer review for the draft Public Health Goal (PHG). Once the PHG is finalized, the California Department of Public Health will rely on it to set a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

When the state does so, it will be the nation’s first jurisdiction to establish a safety limit for chrome 6 in drinking water.

The state’s current standard of 50 ppb, set in 1977, is imprecise and outdated, covering not only toxic chrome 6 but also the essential nutrient chromium 3.

Delays and attempted industry manipulation have plagued efforts by health advocates to update the standard to reflect the most recent scientific findings of chrome 6 toxicity.

A 2006 EWG investigation uncovered a scheme by industry-funded scientists to alter study findings linking chrome 6 in drinking water to cancer. One of the scientists, Dr, Dennis Paustenbach, President and Founder of ChemRisk, a San Francisco-based concern, served on a 2001 ‘blue-ribbon’ panel convened to review OEHHA’s first proposed chrome 6 Public Health Guideline (PHG) and to assess the oral carcinogenicity of the chemical. The panel’s findings were thrown out after serious conflicts of interests were disclosed.

California’s chrome 6 water contamination problem began to come to light in 1993, when Erin Brockovich, then a young legal clerk, helped build the now-famous class action lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for polluting the water supply of tiny Hinkley, CA. The suit led to a $333 million settlement.

While assembling its national Tap Water Database, EWG researchers tallied more than 510 water systems serving 33.4 million Californians with chrome 6 at levels near the upper limit proposed this wek.

EWG’s findings, listed by utility, number of people served and average amounts of chrome 6, can be seen here. California is the only state in the nation that requires its water utilities to test for chrome-6.

The federal drinking water standard for total chromium is 100 ppb, even more lenient than California’s current standard. OEHHA’s proposed chrome 6 Public Health Goal is a strong indication that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must act quickly to update the national standard.


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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