SACRAMENTO, California, October 21, 2009 (ENS) – California could become the first state in the nation to set a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical at the center of the film “Erin Brockovich.” The 2000 film dramatized Brockovich’s investigation of hexavalent chromium in and around Hinkley, California.

The chemical had leaked into the groundwater from the nearby Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Compressor Station. In 1996, as a result of the largest direct action lawsuit of its kind, spearheaded by Brockovich and attorney Ed Masry, the utility paid the largest toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history – $333 million in damages to more than 600 Hinkley residents.

Now, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, OEHHA, within the California Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of taking public comments on a draft technical support document for its proposed Public Health Goal for hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

Public Health Goals are not regulatory requirements, but instead represent non-mandatory goals.

Brockovich made a comment on the proposed Public Health Goal, saying, “Hex chrome is a serious problem and one that I’m glad to see being addressed. California has always led the way in setting standards that other states indeed follow. We need to create more awareness and make prevention the goal to protect people.”

“Hex chrome is a widespread problem and not just limited to California nor to the community of Hinkley, as featured in the film, but communities all over the country have been poisoned by hex chrome,” she said.

Chromium in the soil of this New Jersey industrial parking lot has dissolved in a pool of standing water. (Photo by Paul Lioy courtesy EHP)

Hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6 or Cr(VI), is a heavy metal that is commonly found at low levels in drinking water, according to the OEHHA’s fact sheet on the chemical. It can occur naturally but can also enter drinking water sources by leaks from industrial plants’ hazardous waste sites and other sources.

Chromium 6 is known to be a potent carcinogen when inhaled, says the OEHHA, which adds, “It was recently found to also cause cancer in laboratory mice and rats that were exposed through drinking water.”

“It has been estimated that workers in some 80 different professional categories may be exposed to Cr(VI),” according to an article in the September 2000 issue of “Environmental Health Perspectives,” a federal government publication. “Various Cr(VI) compounds are used in leather tanning, the production of textiles, dyes, and pigments, and chrome plating. Other sources of chromium emissions include oil and coal combustion, stainless steel welding, steel production, cement plants, industrial paint and coating manufacture, and cooling towers, which use Cr(VI) as a rust inhibitor for their submerged moving parts.”

Former California State Senator Deborah Ortiz, author of the bill to establish a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium, said, “I passed the law to set a safe drinking water standard for hex chrome by 2004. Five years later, Californians continue to be exposed to unsafe levels of hex chrome in drinking water. Communities across California have the right to a safe public health goal and we ask the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to honor that law.”

Says Virginia Madueno, Clean Water Action organizer from an impacted community in Riverbank, California, “As a community water advocate and a mother living in an impacted neighborhood, I live every day with the uncertainty of what the chromium in my tap water is doing to my family and my neighbors. Any delay in finalizing this public health goal will continue to compromise the health and safety of my children, and that is simply unacceptable.”

Renee Sharp, director of the Environmental Working Group’s California office, said, “The bad news is that 30 million Californians in more than 500 communities around the state are being exposed to a potent carcinogen through their drinking water. The good news is that attempted industry corruption of the process did not prevail and the state is finally one step closer to addressing this serious public health concern.”

The OEHHA has extended the public comment period on the proposed Public Health Goal after a public workshop on Monday. Written comments must now be received at the OEHHA office by 5:00 pm on November 2 to be considered during this document revision period.

Address comments to: Michael Baes Email: mbaes@oehha.ca.gov Pesticide and Environmental Toxicology Branch Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Environmental Protection Agency 1515 Clay St., 16th floor Oakland, California 94612 Attn: PHG project

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