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EPA urges testing for chemical in tap water

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 8:08 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency is suggesting that water utilities nationwide test their drinking water for hexavalent chromium, a probable carcinogen, after an independent survey released earlier this week found the chemical in tap water drawn from 31 cities.

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The EPA said Wednesday that it is issuing guidance to the utilities explaining how to test for the chemical but is not requiring tests at this time. The agency said it will also give technical help to the 31 cities identified in the survey - including Washington and Bethesda - so they can set up a monitoring and sampling procedure for hexavalent chromium, a chemical made famous by the film "Erin Brockovich."

George Hawkins, the general manager of D.C. Water, said his agency will follow the guidance issued by the EPA. "If additional testing needs to be taken to make sure that what we're doing is protective of public health, that's what we'll do," he said.

Testing for hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, is technically challenging. Many laboratories that handle standard tests for water companies are not equipped to perform the more sophisticated tests.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson met Tuesday with 10 senators representing some of the 31 communities to discuss the findings of the survey, which was conducted by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.

There is no federal limit for the amount of hexavalent chromium that can be in drinking water. The EPA is reviewing emerging science on the question to determine if the chemical's presence in drinking water poses a clear threat to public health and whether a limit should be set. That work is expected to be completed by summer.

The study by the advocacy group was a "snapshot in time" that didn't provide enough analysis to know whether hexavalent chromium is widespread in the nation's drinking water, Jackson told the senators, according to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

"However, as a mother and the head of EPA, I am still concerned about the prevalence of chromium-6 in our drinking water," Jackson said in a statement.

The survey by the advocacy group analyzed tap water in 35 cities around the country. Of the 31 communities where hexavalent chromium was detected, 25 showed levels above a public health goal proposed last year by the state of California.

"The first step is to understand the prevalence of this problem," Jackson said. "While the EWG study was informative, it only provided a snapshot in time. EPA will work with local and state officials to get a better picture of exactly how widespread this problem is."

Hexavalent chromium was a commonly used industrial chemical until the early 1990s. It is still used in some industries, such as chrome plating and the manufacturing of plastics and dyes. The chemical can also leach into groundwater from natural ores.

It has long been known that hexavalent chromium causes cancer in humans if it is inhaled. But in the past several years, researchers have found it causes cancer in animals when it is ingested.

Public awareness about the possible health effects of hexavalent chromium was heightened when residents of Hinkley, Calif., accused Pacific Gas & Electric of leaking the chemical into groundwater for more than 30 years. The company paid $333 million in damages in 1996 and pledged to clean up the contamination. The case was the basis for the Oscar-winning "Erin Brockovich," which starred Julia Roberts.

California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer said Tuesday they will file legislation to require the EPA to set a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium.

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