FRESNO (AP) — A judge has ordered state health officials to establish a safe drinking water standard for the cancer-causing chemical made famous in the film “Erin Brockovich.”
The state Department of Public Health was directed to propose the standard for hexavalent chromium by the end of August. After a public comment period, the Alameda County judge will set the deadline for the agency to adopt a standard.
The ruling on July 18 came nearly a year after environmental groups filed a lawsuit claiming the state was eight years late in setting the standard.
Studies show that hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, can cause cancer in people and has been found to cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver of animals.
The chemical comes chiefly from industrial pollution. It’s used for production of stainless steel, textile dyes, wood preservation, leather tanning and as an anti-corrosive. It also occurs naturally.
Results of state water quality testing conducted between 2000 and 2011 throughout California showed that about a third of the 7,000 drinking water sources tested had hexavalent chromium levels at or above a preliminary benchmark set by the California EPA.
The highest concentrations were reported in Southern California, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties.
The state health department will comply with the August deadline, and its efforts to establish the standard for hexavalent chromium are nearly complete, spokesman Ron Owens said in a statement.
The dangers of chromium-6 became widely known after the film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts, detailed the case of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. The utility was accused of leaking the contaminant into the groundwater of Hinckley, a small desert town, causing health problems.
A year later in 2001, the California Legislature directed public health agencies to set an enforceable drinking water standard for the chemical by 2004.
The process was delayed due to a scientific dispute over whether chromium-6 is carcinogenic when ingested in water. It has long been established that chromium-6 is carcinogenic when inhaled.
Federal scientists at the National Toxicology Program confirmed in 2007 that it’s also carcinogenic when ingested.
The California EPA then set a preliminary benchmark in creating a drinking water standard. But in 2010, the agency recommended even stricter limits after research showed that fetuses, infants and children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of the chemical. That goal was set last year at .02 parts of hexavalent chromium per billion parts of water.
There is no federal standard for chromium-6. Last year, the U.S. EPA released recommendations for enhanced monitoring of the chemical in public water systems and is conducting a review of chromium-6 to decide whether to set a nationwide standard.
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