UNION COUNTY, NJ — A new study published last week by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., shows that approximately 140 New Jersey communities in all the state’s 21 counties contain chromium-6 in their drinking water.
The report shows that the cancer-causing toxin was found in different concentrations throughout the state when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested water systems in 1,370 counties across the country between 2013 and 2015. The cancer-causing toxin was made famous in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich.”
Chromium ore has been used in both industrial and consumer products, as well as being used in the steelmaking and chrome plating process. Chromium has been linked to lung cancer, liver damage and reproductive and developmental problems.
The report states that the toxin was found in more than 150 water systems throughout the state, and contained the carcinogenic chemical at levels that exceed a health limit recommended by California scientists, when the local systems were tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The recommended health limit proposed in 2011 by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is .02 parts per billion. The current standard set forth by the EPA is currently 100 parts per billion. New Jersey currently follows the EPA standard of 100 ppb. The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute, an advisory group, recommended a chromium-6 standard of .07 in 2010 that has not been officially approved.
While none of the state’s water systems exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection’s maximum of 100 parts per billion of total chromium, some argue that standard is too high.
The data shows that while many of New Jersey’s utilities exceeded the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s recommended health limit, none topped California’s legal limit, which is 10 ppb. California is currently the only state that requires water utilities to test for hexavalent chromium.
According to data obtained by LocalSource, more than 150 water systems throughout the state contained the toxin, including all four water systems in Union County.
According to the NWG report, “The National Toxicology Program has found that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of otherwise rare gastrointestinal tumors.”
The report also blasts the EPA for having drinking water standards that are ‘drastically outdated.’ “The EPA’s inaction is but one example of the agency’s lack of resolve in protecting Americans’ tap water,” states the report. “The agency has not set a new, enforceable drinking water standard for any contaminant since 2001, even though the Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to assess the need for standards for at least five new chemicals every five years. Three-fourths of the current standards, including for total chromium, were set in 1991 and 1992 and have not been updated since.”
The report also states that although the EPA has reviewed data on toxicity and water pollution for 138 chemicals, “in every case it declined to set a safety standard. EWG’s analysis of its tap water quality database showed that collectively these chemicals pollute drinking water used by more than 111 million Americans. The framework under which the EPA sets drinking water standards is outdated. EWG recommends that the EPA set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in drinking water as quickly as possible and require all water utilities to test for it.”
But according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, there is more to the report and its results than meets the eye.
Larry Hajna, a spokesperson for the DEP, told LocalSource that the amounts of chromium found is far below the DEP state standards, and that crucial information is not necessarily being disseminated to the public.
According to Hajna, in 2010, the Health Effects Subcommittee — a division of the DEP — met with the New Jersey DWQI, to set a chromium-6 standard of .07 parts per billion. “We worked hand-in-hand with them to review the science and come up with maximum contaminant levels for a variety of toxins,” Hajna said in a phone call.
Hajna asserts that the facts are not necessarily being put out accurately, and that relevant information is missing. One example Hajna cites is the fact that there are two types of chromium — hexavalent and trivalent. Although hexavalent chromium is toxic, trivalent can actually be good for humans. “They assume that 100 ppb is all the bad kind of chromium,” said Hajna. “At the federal level, they’ve been trying to figure out what is safe and how prevalent hexavalent chromium is,” Hajna said. “There is an unregulated reporting system. The EWG took the numbers that are being reported and came up with their own conclusions. They looked at California as a standard that everyone should look at,” Hajna said, citing the legal limit in California of 10 ppb. “Through our own monitoring system, we know that none of our systems exceed the federal standard of 100 parts per billion. None of our systems even came close to 10 ppb. Nobody has even come close to that.”
Hajna said that chromium is a compound that can turn into one form, then back into the other. “The trivalent form can convert to the hexavalent form and back again,” said Hajna.
Trivalent chromium exists naturally in New Jersey in geological formations, and Hajna points out that this is a fact that cannot be ignored. “The question is whether trivalent chromium is turning into hexavalent chromium, and are these trace amounts even coming out,” Hajna asserts. “It’s not being found in our water supply in any appreciable numbers whatsoever,” said Hajna.
Hajna maintains that the EWG is trying to make a point in putting out their report. “The point they’re trying to make is that they think the standard should be .02 like in California,” he said, citing the California OEHHA recommendation. “If you look at the .07 standard in New Jersey, we would have some systems that would exceed that, but many that wouldn’t even come close to .07. It’s like one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” said Hajna of the recommended .07 standard.
The EPA recently issued a statement on chromium in drinking water. “Ensuring safe drinking water for all Americans is a top priority for EPA,” reads the statement. “The agency has taken many actions to improve information on chromium and its potential health risks in drinking water. EPA and states are responsible for ensuring that public water systems are in compliance with the current standard for total chromium. The agency has also collected nationally representative data on the occurrence of both total chromium and hexavalent chromium through the third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. EPA is actively working on the development of the Integrated Risk Information System assessment of hexavalent chromium, which will include a comprehensive evaluation of potential health effects associated with hexavalent chromium.”
According to the EPA, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a contaminant can only be regulated if it meets three criteria, including the possibility of the contaminant having adverse health effects, the contaminant is known to occur or there is a substantial likelihood that the contaminant will occur in public water systems with a frequency and at levels of public health concern, and if the EPA director deems regulation of the contaminant an opportunity for health risk reduction.
Bill Sheehan, Riverkeeper for Hackensack Riverkeeper Inc, an environmental advocacy group, told LocalSource that he believes that the state’s standards are not nearly stringent enough when it comes to chromium-6. “Chromium is not much of a problem for the DEP,” Sheehan said in a phone call. “They have a very lax standard.”
According to Sheehan, just breathing in the toxin can be dangerous. “The California standard should be the national standard,” he said.
According to State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, chromium-6 was found in the state’s drinking water prior to 2010, when the DWQI was established under his legislation. “The Safe Drinking Water Act was prepared to recommend testing and standards for chromium-6 but were stymied because DEP halted all meetings,” Lesniak told LocalSource in an email. “Why did New Jersey stop following the recommendations of the DWQI? Because Gov. Christie and DEP Commissioner (Bob) Martin care more about the chemical industry and water companies than they care about the health of our residents and the quality of the water we drink.”
Lesniak said that his legislation, S2468, will force the DEP to move on 12 recommendations put out by the DWQI that have not yet been adopted by DEP. “I have asked the DWQI to add its recommendations for chromium-6 to be included,” Lesniak said.
Lesniak also responded to the DEP’s claim that the state’s standards are far more stringent than federal standards, as well as those set in California. “If Commissioner Martin hadn’t stopped the work of the DWQI, New Jersey would have had strict standards for chromium-6 and 12 other contaminants recommended by the DWQI but ignored by DEP, which has failed to protect the health of our residents during Governor Christie’s and Commissioner Martin’s time in office,” said Lesniak.
Lesniak said that his legislation will be voted on Oct. 20.
According to Sebastian D’Elia, Union County spokesperson, while levels of chromium-6 were found in the state’s drinking water, the amounts found are significantly below state standards. “The issue you’ve mentioned is a statewide and national one that all water systems face throughout the United States,” D’Elia told LocalSource in a statement. “And while chromium-6 was found in New Jersey drinking water, the levels were significantly below the current standard used by the State DEP. The levels were also below the most stringent threshold of 10 parts per billion set by California. There are ways to filter the water for this substance as well, and the Environmental Working Group maintains an excellence webpage which can assist with this effort.”
Hajna maintains that given the state’s current standard of 100 parts per billion, the chance of an increase in cancer risk is extraordinarily low. “It would translate into one case of cancer in either 100,000 people, or one in a million people, depending on which number you go by,” said Hajna. “Unfortunately, what has happened with this story is that the EWG haven’t conducted the necessary testing according to the EPA. They tied it into Erin Brockovich. They applied standards that don’t exist. It’s just not that simple.”
Hajna said that one of the results of the report issued by the EWG is that they have managed to frighten people with their findings. “Unfortunately, it’s scaring people,” Hajna said. “It’s getting politicians riled up and they’re just reading headlines and I don’t know if they’ve even bothered to do the research and know the numbers. It’s worth it to take the time to understand.”