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Unwelcome Sequel to “Erin Brockovich”

This Week in Green – Dec. 20, 2010

By Geoff Grant – Zoe Environmental Editor

Erin Brockovich – still protecting the environment

We’ve seen this movie before. It was a sad story then and 10 years later, the sequel promises to be just as dark and sobering.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a study today that shows a carcinogen – the same one made famous in the film Erin Brockovich – permeates the tap water of 31 cities across the U.S.

The chemical, hexavalent chromium, has long been known to cause cancer. Additionally, in laboratory testing of animals*, it has been linked to numerous illnesses, including stomach cancer, leukemia, and liver and kidney failure.

The EWG’s findings were the first in-depth study of hexavalent chromium in the nation’s drinking water to be made public.

“This chemical has been so widely used by so many industries across the U.S. that this doesn’t surprise me,” Erin Brockovich said. “Our municipal water supplies are in danger all over the U.S. This is a chemical that should be regulated.”

In the 2000 movie that made her a household name, Brockovich prevailed in a $330 million suit against Pacific Gas & Electric. Brockovich charged that the utility company had been dumping hexavalent chromium in the groundwater of Hinkley, Calif., for more than 30 years.

As damaging as that case was, the Environmental Protection Agency still has not set a limit for hexavalent chromium in water. And California is the only state that has even proposed limiting the chemical in drinking water.

The EWG study found the highest levels of hexavalent chromium in Norman, Okla., where the water registered more than 200 times what California has proposed as the limit. In all, 25 states exceeded the levels of California’s goal.

The EPA said it was cognizant of EWG’s study and that the findings would be part of the agency’s review of hexavalent chromium in tap water for next year.

The president of the EWG, Ken Cook, said the public’s health is what should be paramount.

“It’s not their fault,” Cook said of the water utilities. “They didn’t cause the contamination. But if a limit is set, it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive for them to clean this up.

“The problem in all of this is that we lose sight of the water drinkers, of the people at the end of the tap. There is tremendous pushback from polluters and from water utilities. The real focus has to be on public health.”

*Note: The fact that we mention laboratory testing on animals does not mean that Zoe supports such testing. We oppose all use of unconsenting animals in medical and scientific research.