California took the first step yesterday toward establishing a drinking-water standard for chromium 6, a carcinogenic heavy metal made famous by the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich," which depicted an activist's fight for a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for contaminated water.
The state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment proposed a public health goal of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb) for hexavalent chromium. The guideline is not enforceable and is now open to public review.
"The final goal will be an important first step in the development of a state drinking-water standard," Joan Denton, the department's director, said in a statement. Setting a statewide water standard for chromium 6 could take several years.
California is the first state to adopt a public health goal for chromium and is the only one that requires its water utilities to test for it, according to the Environmental Working Group. The advocacy organization called the proposal a "dramatic move" that represents a growing consensus about the dangers of chromium in drinking water.
There is currently no federal drinking water standard for chromium 6. The state currently has a more lax standard for total chromium compounds -- including chromium 6 and chromium 3 -- in water at 50 ppb. The national standard for chromium is 100 ppb.
California said a separate standard for chromium 6 would allow it to directly protect the public from health risks.
Chromium 6 has long been known to cause cancer when inhaled as dust or fumes, and exposure to airborne chromium 6 is 1,000 times more potent than exposure from drinking water, the state said.
Recent studies suggest that drinking water with chromium could also cause cancer. According to a 2007 National Toxicology Program study, rats that drank water laced with the chemical had significantly higher rates of gastrointestinal tumors. Meanwhile, data from China found increased rates of stomach cancer in people exposed to high levels of chromium 6 in drinking water.
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