Senators ask EPA to act on report of carcinogen in D.C.'s drinking water

Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, briefed a bipartisan group of senators Tuesday after a report found that Washington and other cities have elevated levels of chromium-6, a probable carcinogen, in their public drinking water.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) met with Jackson in Durbin’s office on the third floor of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon.

They convened the meeting after the Environmental Working Group, an organization headquartered in Washington, released a report this week that found chromium-6 in the tap water of 31 cities across the country.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Administrator Jackson assured us that the EPA is taking the report seriously and is in the process of evaluating at what level chromium-6 should be regulated,” Durbin said in a statement after the meeting. 

“The results of the Environmental Working Group’s study should not cause undue panic, but encourage communities to engage in their own testing. Toward that effort, Senator Kirk and I are asking the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to work with the U.S. EPA and communities that rely on Lake Michigan for their drinking water to test for chromium-6,” he said.

Chromium-6, also known as hexavalent chromium, is used in the production of stainless steel and other alloys. It gained attention as a probable carcinogen in the film “Erin Brockovich." 

The national EPA does not have a limit for chromium-6 but restricts all chromium content to 100 parts per billion in tap water to protect people from skin rashes. But that limit includes chromium-3, which is relatively safe compared to chromium-6.

California’s EPA has set a “public health goal,” or maximum safe concentration, of 0.06 parts per billion. The environmental group found Washington and Bethesda, Md., had 0.19 part per billion of chromium-6 in drinking water — more than three time as much as determined safe by California environmental officials.

Honolulu, Hawaii, was found to have 2 parts per billion of chromium-6 in its water, several times more than Washington.

Jackson told lawmakers that the EPA will coordinate peer-reviewed studies of chromium-6 contamination by the end of summer 2011.

“It’s serious but not to panic, there are things that can be done,” said Nelson.

Jackson told lawmakers that the EPA would review its chromium standard and try to determine the sources of contamination in the D.C.-area.

Democratic Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) also attended the meeting.

Durbin and Kirk sent a letter Tuesday to Doug Scott, the director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, asking him to work with the federal EPA to test local drinking water.

The study found chromium-6 in concentrations of 0.18 parts per billion in Chicago’s tap water.

“A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that chromium-6 ingestion has harmful effects on human health,” the lawmakers wrote. “The current federal standard, which was set in 1992, fails to distinguish between chromium-3 (trivalent chromium) and the more toxic chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium),” the lawmakers wrote.  

“The U.S. EPA is in the early stages of re-evaluating the federal standard for chromium in drinking water,” they added. “In the meantime, we hope that we can work with you to assist communities and water systems throughout the state in understanding the implications of recent media reports and, where appropriate following through with chromium-6 testing.”