State 9 years late on water safety standard

February 25, 2013 7:24:05 PM PST
When laws are passed, we are expected to follow them and when we don't, we get in trouble. But it seems a state agency is getting away with not following a law that was passed to keep drinking water safe.

The compound hexavalent chromium occurs in nature, but it's also used in industry -- part of the chrome plating process. There's no debate it can cause cancer, and that's confirmed by the National Toxicology Program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet, the state has been slow to act.

Hexavalent chromium is found in water across California. Data from the California Department of Public Health shows it's been detected in 52 of the state's 58 counties.

It's believed to cause cancer when ingested, but there's debate over how much is harmful to drink.

The ABC7 News I-Team sampled water in four Bay Area locations chosen for their histories of hexavalent chrome levels. We followed the instructions, took samples and brought them to McCampbell lab in Pittsburg -- the only lab in the Bay Area doing the latest EPA test for hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

We wanted to compare the results to the state standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water. One problem, even with a law on the books, the state never established one.

"It's delay, delay, delay, delay," Erin Brockovich said.

Brockovich and her namesake movie from 13 years ago made hexavalent chromium infamous. Her efforts helped spark a law mandating the California Department of Public Health to come up with a maximum contaminant level in drinking water by 2004.

Nine years later and still no standard.

"You're supposed to be here to help protect the health and welfare of a community or of a state and you're not doing that," Brockovich said.

The I-Team asked to speak to someone from the Department of Public Health. They declined because the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group have filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Public Health over the lack of a standard.

"When you think about the number of children, the number of adults that have been exposed for a fair percentage their life time, at this point," EWG spokesperson Renee Sharp said.

"Like it or not, it usually takes about 10 years to get that kind of information," U.S. EPA toxicologist Bruce Macler said.

Macler says it takes time to set standards. He points out more tests need to be done to determine how dangerous the compound is to drink.

Macler also believes there is no cause to worry.

"I don't think we have any, or there would only be a few folks, that would really be at risk at this point from hexavalent chrome in their drinking water," he said.

In July 2011, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set the public health goal for hexavalent chromium in drinking water at 0.02 parts per billion -- an unenforceable number meant to guide the Department Of Public Health's standard process.

According to OEHHA's website, the public health goal "means that for every million people who drink two liters of water with that level of chromium 6 daily for 70 years" one person would get cancer.

Brockovich says the risk to one person is enough that the state should use the public health goal as its standard.

"They didn't set a public health goal that low, unless something above that, in fact, could jeopardize public health," she said.

"They set it at such an exceeding low level," Don Froelich said.

Much of the research on how to get hexavalent chromium out of drinking water has been done in Glendale, where levels are high. Froelich manages the Glendale program. His team has been successful in getting hexavalent chrome down to one part per billion from 80 parts per billion.

Froelich points out there's no process to get the levels down to the 0.02 public health goal -- that might take another 10 years to develop.

That brings us back to our tests. In Livermore, where they're also running tests on hexavalent chromium removal, the I-Team found none at Tex Spruiell Park. Bothwell Park was not so lucky -- we 0.48 parts per billion, almost 25 times higher than the public health goal.

The numbers jump in San Jose. The drinking fountain in the Santa Clara County Administration Building had 1.64 parts per billion -- 82 times greater than the public health goal.

But no place we sampled had more hexavalent chromium than Ryland Park in San Jose. The level there was 2.95 parts per billion, 147 times higher than the state's public health goal.

Numbers likes these frustrate Brockovich, because of the state's lack of action.

"You have a law to deal with, you're ignoring it and you are personally responsible for putting all these people in jeopardy," she said.

On its website, the California Department of Public Health says it will release a draft standard this summer that will be open for public comment. The official standard may not go into effect until July 2015.

Tuesday night you'll hear what two local water companies say about our samples and what it may cost you if they have to comply with a low standard.


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