WashPost: Cr-6 worries in Calif

Gary Greenberg Gary.Greenberg at Duke.edu
Mon Dec 11 05:04:46 EST 2000

Fear of Toxin in Tap Water Rocks California Valley


[Mod: Please visit the website to see the whole-text article -G]

BURBANK, Calif. –– No one tastes it, smells it or even knows how much to
fear it, but a toxic chemical just featured in a popular movie has the
San Fernando Valley racked with worry that its tap water has become the
latest victim of Southern California's endless battle with pollution.

Chromium 6 is turning up in wells that supply water to this arid basin
in metropolitan Los Angeles at levels state environmental researchers
say should no longer be acceptable. There is no sign of panic in the
streets, but that revelation has set off a political and scientific
scramble to assess the contamination problem and decide whether it
requires urgent fixing.

Nearly 200 industrial sites around the valley are being examined for
evidence of the pollutant, which can cause cancer or other serious
illnesses from extensive exposure. Sales of bottled water are booming
and schools are sending parents reassuring letters about water safety. A
nearby city, Glendale, has postponed using any well water. And the
real-life inspiration for the film "Erin Brockovich," a tale of a feisty
woman's heroic fight to uncover the dangers of chromium 6 in a
California desert town, is back on the case.
When inhaled as dust, chromium 6 is widely considered to be a
carcinogen, but scientists are still debating the dangers it may pose
when ingested.


"We don't currently have enough water for our growth needs," said David
Beckman, a lawyer in the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources
Defense Council. "So when you start talking about taking major sources
of it out of service because of contamination, it's potentially a really
bad situation. But they might have to do that. Nobody here is arguing
that it is good to have chromium 6 in the water."

But how much is too much? That is the fundamental question confronting
state and local officials.

The debate in the valley over chromium 6 in some ways is a sign of how
serious California's campaign against pollution is getting. The state
has stronger rules to protect its water supply than the federal
government recommends, particularly for chromium. But for the past year,
a state agency that examines environmental health hazards has been
calling for even tougher standards to keep the chemical out of the
ground water that California cities pump and treat for human

Some officials say the step is overdue because of the risks associated
with chromium 6. It is a manufacturing byproduct of chromium, which is
an odorless metallic element that many industries use to make and harden
steel. And it is being found in soil and water around the San Fernando
Valley because long before the area became a home to movie and
television studios, it was a hub for aerospace industry giants such as
Lockheed Martin. The company had a large manufacturing plant in Burbank
for more than 50 years.

The toxic chemical also is not just turning up in worrisome amounts
around industrial wastelands. Recent county tests have shown possible
contamination near schools, libraries and health clinics.


At a packed hearing in the Burbank City Hall last month, a panel of
scientists told lawmakers and residents that while waiting for more
conclusive studies on the risks of chromium 6, the state should err on
the side of caution and enact tougher protections against it seeping
into the water supply.

Public anxiety over the issue is spreading in part because of the recent
film "Erin Brockovich." Set in the small desert town of Hinkley, Calif.,
it dramatized the true story of how chromium 6 in the soil inflicted
unsuspecting residents with serious illnesses. The amounts turning up
around the San Fernando Valley are nowhere close to what was found in
Hinkley, but they still exceed the strict new limit being proposed for
the state.

Brockovich, an outspoken legal aide to local lawyer Edward Masry, is
once again sounding an alarm. "People are being exposed to a poison in
their water," she told a Los Angeles City Council meeting recently.

The uproar began when the state's health department conceded this fall
that it could take five years to adopt a stronger standard to protect
local water supplies from chemical contamination. That disclosure,
reported first in the Los Angeles Times, has provoked an aggressive
political attack.

California Gov. Gray Davis (D) swiftly signed legislation requiring the
health department to assess the threat of chromium 6 in water in no more
than a year. Last week, a coalition of legislators also urged the state
to force utility companies to notify the public any time levels of
chromium 6 in water exceed the new limit environmental researchers have

The state's 3,400 water systems have been asked to conduct tests for the
chemical. In Los Angeles County, water also is being checked at all
government facilities and the regional water board is promising to
increase its inspections of suspected polluters.

But the price of purifying the water in dozens of wells, or finding new
sources of water, could be steep. By some estimates, the cost in parts
of the San Fernando Valley could top $50 million a year. And whether
all, or any, of it is necessary to guarantee public safety is still in


© 2000 The Washington Post Company
Gary N. Greenberg, MD MPH    Sysop / Moderator Occ-Env-Med-L MailList
gary.greenberg at duke.edu     Duke Occupat, Environ, Int & Fam Medicine
OEM-L Maillist Website:                      http://occhealthnews.com


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