Calls For Reducing Chromium Levels In Water Go Unheeded
A state agency wants to raise the threshold for acceptable amounts in Valley wells. But not all agree the chemical poses a real threat.
August 20, 2000
By Chip Jacobs and Andrew Blankstein
Special to the Times
Two years after the state called for slashing levels of a suspected cancer-causing agent in drinking water, authorities have yet to implement the proposal–even though local officials fear the chemical is turning up in greater quantities in San Fernando Valley wells.
Chromium 6–an odorless chemical that has taken center stage in several toxic suits–has been detected in two dozen Valley ground- water wells, including ones operated by the cities of Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale, officials say.
The chemical also has been detected in 30 of 80 Valley-area federal ground-water monitoring sites, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tests.
Even so, it could take five more years before the state moves to adopt tougher standards for chromium 6, said David Spath, drinking water chief for the state Department of Health Services.
Part of the reason for the delay, according to Spath and others, is that the health risk of chromium 6 in water is still being debated and studied–as are the costs and benefits of stricter standards. Some water officials contend the threat has been exaggerated. Others say there is ample evidence of danger and the state should act more quickly.
“Chromium 6 is a carcinogen in numerous animal species and humans- -and is not supposed to be present in water at all,” said James Dahlgren, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at UCLA. “It’s very unfortunate, but I think the only justification of not lowering the standard seems to be economics: It’s a pure cost-benefit calculation. That’s what’s holding this up.”
Local water utility officials, however, say the risks of chromium 6 in water are not proven.
“For many, many years, people have been drinking the water,” said Mel Blevins, watermaster for the upper Los Angeles River area, a court-appointed position that oversees ground-water pumping rights in the San Fernando Valley. “I don’t see a lot of people sick.”
Spath said state officials have spent the last two years developing a test for chromium 6 and sampling wells around the state to determine the extent of the problem.
“Chromium 6 is not something that’s routinely analyzed,” he said. “You have to develop the method, capability and then do the sampling and analysis.”
An analysis of those samples is expected to be completed within weeks, Spath said.
The state must then complete a series of rigorous steps before it can mandate new chromium 6 standards for local water utilities, he said.
Those steps include reviews of the health threat posed by chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, and a cost-benefit analysis, since a new standard would increase costs to water agencies.
“It’s obvious that hexavalent chromium is on the radar screen,” Spath said. “But there’s a paucity of data about it, and we think it’s appropriate to define the universe.”
CHROMIUM USED IN MANUFACTURING
Today’s chromium 6 problem can be traced to the Valley’s legacy as an aerospace and industrial center. Relied on to harden steel, make paint pigments and other tasks, chromium has been used by everyone from warplane makers to electroplating shops.
Chromium itself is a benign element found in nature. But when used in some manufacturing activities, it can transform into the toxic chromium 6.
In concentrated manufacturing areas like the East Valley, chromium 6 can get into soil and ground water by intentional discharges or accident.
Water agencies aren’t required to test for chromium 6, and instead monitor for total chromium. But heightened levels of chromium can indicate the presence of its dangerous hybrid, chromium 6.
Currently, the state allows a maximum of 50 parts chromium per billion parts of drinking water. That standard assumes that chromium 6 makes up about 7.2% of any chromium sample–a percentage some officials say is far too low.
In 1998, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment issued a draft recommendation to cut the allowable levels of chromium to 2.5 parts per billion. The recommendation, which was made formal in 1999, was based on studies suggesting that chromium 6 could cause cancer when ingested with water, said Dr. David Morry, a state toxicologist who was the main author of the proposal.
Max Costa, who chairs the Department of Environmental Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, said chromium 6 isn’t an immediate threat to life. Instead, chromium 6 kills over time, causing cancer decades later.
“If you have the genetic makeup to get cancer and you’re exposed to environmental carcinogens like chromium 6, you’re going to get cancer,” Costa said.
“In an ideal world there should not be any amount of chromium 6 in drinking water,” he added. “The state should set the standard as low as possible, and they shouldn’t wait to change it.”
Changing the standard would be costly, water officials contend.
“I think it would be devastating to water agencies throughout the state and consumers as a result of the rate increases,” said Harold Tighe, a public works manager with the city of San Fernando. “People feel they are paying enough for water now.”
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the cities of Burbank and San Fernando all pump ground water from Valley wells, which helps reduce reliance on costly imported water. Glendale also has plans to begin pumping well water to mix with imported supplies.
NEW STANDARDS COULD BE COSTLY
Chromium in local water wells currently varies from trace amounts to concentrations as high as 110 parts per billion in Burbank, said Dixon Oriola, a senior engineer with Regional Water Quality Control Board.
San Fernando Valley wells pumped by the Department of Water and Power range from trace amounts of chromium to 30 parts per billion, or more than 12 times the proposed state standard, Oriola said.
Oriola said other local manufacturing centers such as the San Gabriel Valley and the South Bay have pockets of chromium 6 contamination, but said the problems there aren’t as bad as the Valley because of the nature of manufacturing, the ground hydrology and other factors.
Valley-area water officials insist tap water is already safe because California chromium standards are more than twice as strict as the federal government’s. And they say the impact of a 2.5-part- per-billion health standard for chromium would be an economic tsunami. The potential repercussions include:
* Shutting dozens of local water-supply wells in northern Los Angeles, Burbank and San Fernando.
* Forcing DWP customers to swallow $47 million in added costs annually for imported water from the Metropolitan Water District, said Pankaj Parekh, the DWP’s director of water quality compliance. That amounts to $5 a month for the typical customer.
* Putting the brakes on a $2-million well-pumping facility planned by Glendale.
* Requiring Burbank to reopen complex water-pollution agreements negotiated between the city and a slew of industrial polluters such as defense colossus Lockheed Martin. Those polluters paid $60 million to maintain and operate a water treatment plant near Burbank Airport under a federal consent decree.
Burbank would be hit especially hard, since it relies on ground water for 63% of its overall supply. Burbank officials say cutting the chromium standard to 2.5 parts per billion would force them to spend $3 million a year–double the current outlay–for imported water.
“A 2.5 standard would be a crippling blow to all ground-water pumping activities in the Valley,” said Blevins, the area watermaster.
Spath said the economic impact will be one of the key issues considered as the state decides whether to adopt a tougher chromium standard or an entirely new standard for chromium 6.
“It’s one of the elements the law says you have to evaluate,” he said, citing the state’s 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act, the law responsible for triggering the state’s review of chromium 6 in water.
Currently, the 2.5-parts-per-billion benchmark is a “public health goal” adopted by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. In order for that goal to become a legal standard, it must be adopted by the state Department of Health Services.
LEVELS MAY BE INCREASING
Burbank resident Lynnell Murray-Madrid says the state should not take any chances with drinking water, and should adopt the standard immediately.
Murray was raised on Pass Avenue near the old Lockheed Aircraft factory at Burbank Airport. Today, she says five family members are sick–and Murray, a 44-year-old receptionist, believes it stems from their long-term exposure to toxic pollutants, including chromium 6, generated by the company’s Cold War operations.
Her mother has Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal disorder. Her sister, seriously ill in Florida, may have it as well. In 1978, Murray was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer.
“Had I known we were exposed to these chemicals, instead of people telling me I was crazy with my symptoms, my cancer could’ve been caught much earlier,” Murray said.
There are also signs that chromium 6 concentrations are increasing.
Gary Yamamoto, chief of technical programs for the state Department of Health Services, said recent tests show that chromium levels–which are presumed to include chromium-6–have increased in the Valley.
“Two local wells in Glendale and Burbank currently exceed allowable levels for total chromium, where two years ago no Valley wells were above the state standard,” Yamamoto said. “The problem is, in a year or two, evidence shows more of those wells will exceed the drinking water standard.”
A well near the old Lockheed factory in Burbank, for example, went from 15 parts per billion in 1995 to 110 parts per billion in 1999, he said. It fell back to 25 parts per billion in samples taken earlier this year, Yamamoto said.
Water officials point out that the U.S. government and California currently classify chromium 6 as a carcinogen when inhaled, but not when ingested through water.
In his report recommending a new public health goal for chromium, Morry relied heavily on a 1968 German experiment that found two of 66 mice given chromium 6-tainted water developed malignant stomach cancer. An additional nine rodents grew benign tumors.
Morry said his recommendation is based on the assumption that chromium 6 comprises 7.2% of total chromium. But samples taken by state and local officials have found sharply higher concentrations of chromium 6–in some cases more than 50%.
The 7.2% assumption was based on a study of water in North Carolina, he noted.
“Now we’re getting data from the California drinking water services,” said Morry, the state toxicologist. “If chromium 6 is higher than 7.2% of total chromium, it would suggest having a lower public health goal in the future.
“This health goal has at least caused people to go out and test for chromium 6 when they hadn’t done it before,” Morry said. “We proceed with the data we have available. And from there, the data only improves.”
LEAKING TANKS SPARKED LAWSUIT
Chromium 6 has been blamed as a cancer-causing agent in several high-profile lawsuits. In a case made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich,” residents of the San Bernardino County town of Hinkley won a $333-million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric when its underground tanks leaked chromium 6 into ground-water supplies.
Brockovich, a legal assistant on the case who was catapulted to fame by the movie, says she cannot understand why state officials would take so long to deal with its threat to water supplies.
“When you take all of the technical, scientific and legal hoopla out of it, it really comes down to the fact chromium 6 is a poison,” Brockovich said. “Do you really want to drink it? I’ll tell you I’m not going drink it. And I don’t know many people who would.”
A final decision on adopting a new standard on chromium will be made by the state Department of Health Services. The agency’s director, Diana Bonta, declined to be interviewed, but in a statement defended the time it will take to complete the review.
“These issues are extremely complex and there are no easy fixes,” she said. “I am anticipating analysis and recommendations from department scientists on the best actions to protect public health.”
copyright Los Angeles Times
Blankstein is a Times staff writer. Jacobs is a freelancer writer.