The Hollywood movie 'Erin Brockovich' starring Julia Roberts, brought home the reality of the effects of consuming water that has been contaminated with chromium-6 – a heavy metal that is believed to be carcinogenic to humans. The film tells the story of cancer inflicted Hinkley residents, who sued Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) for damages arising from drinking water that they contaminated with chromium-6. In the 1950s and 60s, PG&E used chromium-6 to control algae and for rust-proofing its natural gas pumping station located 2 miles from the town of Hinkley. Water laced with chromium-6 was subsequently dumped into unlined settling ponds from where it leached into the groundwater that supplied the town's drinking water. This resulted in a contaminated plume of water that stretches 6 miles long by 2 miles wide, and is believed to be spreading further within the aquifer. In 1996 the residents of Hinkley won a $330 million settlement for illness and suffering caused from drinking chromium-6 contaminated water, and PG&E were forced to provide residents with solutions to ensure that they had a water supply that was safe to drink. To this end, PG&E has been providing residents of Hinkley, as well as the local school, with bottled water, and have equipped some households with whole house water purification systems to remove the chromium-6 from their drinking water.
However, in a recent news report, PG&E has now been cited for supplying Hinkley households with bottled water that does not meet the standards stipulated by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, who set the maximum concentration level for chromium-6 at 0.06 parts per billion. The water they supplied contained chromium-6 at concentration levels twice as high as those stipulated (water samples contained chromium-6 at levels of 0.11 parts per billion in August, and 0.14 parts per billion in September). While this is still significantly below the federal levels of 100 parts per billion set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), individual states are able to set their own standards for drinking water, which override those set by the EPA and have to be complied with locally. California is the only state that requires that drinking water be tested for chromium-6. They do this for good reason, as the EPA is in the process of researching the long-term health effects of consuming chromium-6 in drinking water and possibly revising drinking water standards for chromium-6 once the study is completed.
But it would appear that the Californian desert town of Hinkley is not an isolated case. A survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 31 out of 35 US cities had tap water that contained chromium-6, with the city of Norman, Oklahoma containing the highest levels – as much as 12.9 parts per billion – followed by Honolulu, Hawaii at 2.00 parts per billion, and Riverside, California at 1.69 parts per billion. The water utilities that supply these 31 cities with drinking water collectively supply drinking water to 26 million people. The state of California conducts regular tests for chromium-6 in drinking water – where chromium-6 has been detected in the water supply that services 31 million people.
The EWG reports that chromium-6 is widespread in American drinking water, with some 74 million Americans in 42 states being exposed to the pollutant. They are pressing the EPA to act swiftly to establish tighter controls for the allowable concentration levels of chromium-6 in drinking water to ensure the health and safety of American citizens.
In the meantime, most water utilities do not test for chromium-6, so your drinking water may very well be contaminated. Americans can, however, take safety measures to limit their exposure. Some top quality drinking water filters, such as the Berkey fitted with Black Berkey filter elements are capable of filtering chromium-6 from your water and are an option for those concerned about this risk.