Chromium-6 Is Widespread in US Tap Water
Cancer-causing chemical found in 89 percent of cities sampled
Laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG) have detected hexavalent chromium, the carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich chemical,” in tap water from 31 of 35 American cities. The highest levels were in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif. In all, water samples from 25 cities contained the toxic metal at concentrations above the safe maximum recently proposed by California regulators.
The National Toxicology Program has concluded that hexavalent chromium (also called chromium-6) in drinking water shows “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity” in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of gastrointestinal tumors. In September 2010, a draft toxicological review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) similarly found that hexavalent chromium in tap water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
In 2009, California officials proposed setting a “public health goal” for hexavalent chromium in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb) to reduce cancer risk. This was the first step toward establishing a statewide enforceable limit. Despite mounting evidence of its toxic effects, the EPA has not set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in tap water nationally and does not require water utilities to test for it. In 25 cities where EWG’s testing detected chromium-6 — in the first publicly available national survey for the contaminant — it was found in concentrations exceeding California’s proposed maximum, in one case at a level more than 200 times higher.
At least 74 million Americans in 42 states drink chromium-polluted tap water, much of it likely in the cancer-causing hexavalent form. Given the scope of exposure and the magnitude of the potential risk, EWG believes the EPA should move expeditiously to establish a legal limit for chromium-6 and require public water suppliers to test for it. READ MORE
What is hexavalent chromium?
Hexavalent chromium (or chromium-6) is a highly toxic form of the naturally occurring metal chromium. It is a well-known human carcinogen when inhaled, and recent evidence indicates it can cause stomach or gastrointestinal cancer when ingested in drinking water. A different form of this metal, trivalent chromium, is an essential nutrient.
Exposure to hexavalent chromium commonly occurs through consuming contaminated water or food, as well as by breathing contaminated air in the workplace, especially for those working in metallurgy or leather-tanning facilities. Contaminated soil particles may also be a source of exposure via ingestion or inhalation. Widespread industrial use has led to detections of hexavalent chromium in two-thirds of current or former Superfund sites.
How does it get into tap water?
Hexavalent chromium can enter water through industrial contamination from manufacturing facilities, including electroplating factories, leather tanneries and textile manufacturing facilities, or from disposal of fluids used in cooling towers before 1990. It also occurs naturally in some minerals. The commonly used tap water disinfectant chlorine can transform trivalent chromium into toxic hexavalent chromium.
Why is it a problem?
Exposure in tap water has been linked to cancers of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract in both animals and people. California’s Environmental Protection Agency has released a draft public health goal based on the conclusion that levels of chromium-6 greater than 0.06 parts per billion (ppb) in tap water may increase cancer risk.
Some people may be especially susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of chromium-6. Fetuses, infants, and children have higher sensitivity to carcinogenic chemicals. In addition, people with less acidic stomachs appear to have a limited ability to convert hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium (chromium-3), exposing them to higher levels of the toxic form and putting them at greater risk. Using common antacids and proton pump inhibitors can reduce stomach acidity. Other conditions that can inhibit stomach acid production include infection with Helicobacter pylori (a common bacterium linked to ulcers), pernicious anemia, pancreatic tumors, mucolipidosis type IV and some autoimmune diseases.
How can I find out if my tap water has hexavalent chromium in it?
California requires water utilities to test and report levels of chromium-6 in their water. For Californians, this is a good way to see if this contaminant is a concern in your area. Unfortunately, these tests only measure levels at or above 1 ppb, more than 16 times higher than the suggested public health goal of 0.06 ppb. Of the 438 community water sources in California that have provided test data to EWG, 223 detected levels over 1 ppb and 93 detected levels over 5 ppb. This means more than 13.7 million Californians drink tap water contaminated with hexavalent chromium.
Elsewhere, water utilities only test and report levels of total chromium — which includes both the toxic form and the essential nutrient chromium-3. These tests only measure levels at or above 10 ppb, more than 160 times higher than California’s proposed public health goal. If your tap water has detectable levels of total chromium, it’s quite possible that it has levels of hexavalent chromium that violate California’s suggested public health goal. The ratio of chromium-3 to chromium-6 varies for different water supplies, so it is difficult to estimate how much of each form might be in your water.
Contact your local water utility or check EWG’s tap water database to learn if chromium has been detected in your tap water.
My tap water has high levels. What should I do?
If your tap water contains high levels, your best bet is to install a reverse osmosis water filter certified to remove this contaminant. Reverse osmosis filters, especially when combined with superior carbon filter technology, are best for ridding tap water of the largest number of contaminants possible. EWG provides a list of reverse osmosis water filters certified to remove hexavalent chromium and available for purchase on Amazon.
See EWG’s water filter buying guide for more information on how to select a water filter.
While drinking bottled water might seem like a good way to avoid exposing yourself to hexavalent chromium in tap water, there is no guarantee that bottled water has lower concentrations of this contaminant. If you drink bottled water, choose brands that provide water quality information indicating their water has levels of chromium-6 below 0.06 ppb or that use reverse osmosis filtration to treat their water.
Because infants can be especially sensitive to carcinogenic chemicals, it is particularly important to use safer water when preparing infant formula. Water treated with a reverse osmosis home filter will contain fewer contaminants and be safer for babies.
Can I test my own tap water for chromium-6?
Most commercial water quality laboratories do not offer this test.
Besides drinking water, how else can I be exposed?
Other sources of exposure to hexavalent chromium include contaminated food and contaminated workplace air, especially for those working in metallurgy or leather-tanning facilities. Contaminated soil particles may also be a source of exposure via ingestion or inhalation. Widespread industrial use has led to detections of chromium-6 in two-thirds of current or former Superfund sites.
Are some people more vulnerable to the effects?
Yes. Fetuses, infants, and children have a higher sensitivity to carcinogenic chemicals. Their developing organ systems are more susceptible to damage from chemical exposures, and less able to detoxify and excrete chemicals.
In addition, people with less acidic stomachs appear to have a limited ability to convert chromium-6 to chromium-3, exposing them to higher levels of the toxic form and putting them at greater risk. Using common antacids and proton pump inhibitors can reduce stomach acidity. Other conditions that can inhibit stomach acid production include infection with Helicobacter pylori (a common bacterium linked to ulcers), pernicious anemia, pancreatic tumors, mucolipidosis type IV and some autoimmune diseases.
What other chemicals in my tap water should I be concerned about?
Check out EWG’s tap water database for an in-depth look at water contaminants, including drinking water quality information for 48,000 communities in 45 states and the District of Columbia.
What is EPA doing to promote safe drinking water?
Not enough. In the case of hexavalent chromium, the EPA has taken no action to specifically limit levels of this toxic compound in drinking water. The agency has left in place an inadequate standard for total chromium, set nearly 20 years ago, that does not distinguish between toxic hexavalent and nutritionally essential trivalent chromium and cites “allergic dermatitis” as the only relevant health concern. The agency has not set a new, enforceable drinking water standard for any contaminant since 2001.
Recently the federal government has begun to focus a critical eye on chromium-6 and other water contaminants. EWG recommends that the EPA set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in drinking water as quickly as possible and require water utility testing to assess exposures nationwide.