Utah drinking water contains too much cancer-causing chromium-6, report says

Friday , September 30, 2016 - 6:35 PM23 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct California’s maximum contaminant level. We regret the error.

Tests show Utah’s drinking water contains the cancer-causing metallic element chromium-6, prompting environmental groups to sound a public health alarm and press regulators to speed up the response.

Chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, was found in all water systems in Northern Utah that were tested in 2013-15 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including six in Weber County, 11 in Davis County and two in Box Elder County. Morgan County’s water was not tested.

The EPA ordered the tests nationwide after data from a long-term animal study indicated ingestion of chromium-6 could cause cancer in humans. Some chromium-6 occurs naturally but typically comes from industrial side affects such as welding and metals processing, and it can be released from the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal, the EPA says.

Environmental groups are agitating for action because the EPA does not yet regulate chromium-6. The agency in 1991 set a drinking water maximum contaminant level of 100 parts per billion of total chromium, which also includes the benign chromium-3. Meanwhile, California adopted tougher standards in 2014 to allow a maximum contaminant level of just 10 parts per billion. 

The Environmental Working Group released a report in September estimating more than two-thirds of the U.S. population is drinking water that violates the California health standard.

The group accused the EPA of dragging its feet due to pressure from industry lobbyists over concerns about potential cleanup costs and additional regulation.

Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said his group will be looking into the issue. He noted that most Utah water systems have chromium-6 levels up to 200 times greater than the California maximum.

“We would like to find out what it would take to clean up hexavalent chromium, so we can have an informed and reasonable discussion about whether we should invest in the filtration systems necessary,” Moench said.

Utah follows the EPA’s lead on clean-water regulations. The state does not have the resources to develop its own regulations, said Nathan LaCross, environmental epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

California’s maximum contaminant level goal signifies chromium-6 is safe in drinking water at 0.02 ppb or lower, according to the best current science. The state meanwhile set the maximum contaminant level at 10 ppb as an enforceable regulatory violation.

“California is one of the few states to develop its own goals and its own levels, in no small part because they have a great deal of funding,” LaCross said.

The state has the only chromium-6 drinking water standard in the country.

“This is one of those evolving areas of research,” LaCross said. “As we learn more about these issues as a society, we will be updating (contaminant) levels. There is risk in all things, managing in all things.”

Ken Bousfield, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said all the recent chromium-6 results were far below the EPA standard but well above California’s.

Bousfield said, in his personal opinion, California might not be overreacting. 

“They didn’t just throw it up there. They went through a set process and came up with a conclusion,” he said. “Based on that evaluation, you know it is something to look at but (it’s) not a significant health concern, to stop drinking the water and all those other things.”

He said he expects the EPA will consider how to perform toxicological studies, determine levels of risk and treatments and then propose a standard.

A long regulatory path doesn’t satisfy Moench.

“I don’t want to be drinking chromium, do you? There is a significant difference between the health goal and what the allowable standard is,” Moench said. “If there is a fair amount of evidence, that should be our health goal. Anything else ought to be considered unacceptable.”

The EPA’s view, as expressed on its website: Standards “are set as close to the health goals as possible after considering costs, benefits and the ability of public water systems to detect and remove contaminants using suitable treatment technologies.”

But quicker action is needed when risks are high, Moench said.

“Because the EPA is still evaluating and has been doing so for many years, and might take many more years, I don’t think we can wait that long when there are carcinogenic and health risks,” he said.

Water supplies already are threatened by contamination from lead and arsenic, he said, and now there’s a growing exposure in the water supply of “residuals or pharmaceuticals that people excrete.”

“I think that rather than dismiss these findings we should be figuring out how to clean up our water,” he said. “We could do worse things than spending some money making our water too clean.”

Kenton Moffett, Ogden City’s public utilities manager, was happy with the Ogden water system’s 0.06 ppb chromium-6 result — the best in the area.

“We appreciate (the) EPA giving guidance on what to look for, so we can stay ahead of problems before they become something that needs to be regulated,” Moffett said.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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