What Would Erin Brockovich Say? Humboldt Has Chromium 6 in Much of Its Major Water Sources

According to a new and well regarded study, water in Humboldt County contains Chromium 6, a known cancer causing chemical, in levels exceeding California’s public health goal. Local water managers, however, point out that all the water tested exceeds current legal water standards for that chemical.

In the video clip above from a movie based on a true story, Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, tells an attorney for PG&E about to drink a glass of water, “We had that water brought in special for you folks. It came from a well in Hinkley.” The visibly worried attorney slowly sets down the glass. The water in Hinkley contained high levels of Chromium 6 which Brockovich and her group contended had leaked from a plant near their town and contaminated their drinking water. As a result, Brockovich argued that residents of the town got high levels of cancer.

Last month, The Environmental Working Group released the results of a nationwide study of water systems. (PBS and CNN reported on the study. Follow the links to read more.)  According to an interactive map produced by the group, water tested in Humboldt County* for Chromium 6 are far over the .02 parts per billion recommended in a public health goal for California. (See screenshot below.)

Humboldt COunty chromium 6 levels

The seven tested water systems in Humboldt County exceed California’s recommended levels according to this screenshot from a study by the Environmental Working Group

The highest Chromium 6 results are from the Humboldt CSD. Chromium 6 appears at over 2 parts per billion (ppb) in several water sources there. The water from the wells in Hinkley, the town that Erin Brockovich fought to help, were 1.19 ppb with spikes occasionally far over 3 ppb. [Note: According to an article in the Scientific American and to another article in Wikipedia, there was 580 ppb Chromium 6 in the Hinkley water. We’ve been unable to reconcile the two vastly differing numbers.]

Some of our local wells tests show high Chromium 6 levels. For instance, the chemical occurs in the Humboldt CSD’s South Bay Well at 110 times the recommended maximum recommended limits. The lowest level in any of the water sources tested is one for the City of Arcata which is “only” .05 ppb (parts per billion) or 2.5 times the maximum level.

Nationally, there is no limit on the amount of the chemical that can occur in drinking water. California, however, in 2014, set a standard of 10 parts per billion which all local water falls safely under. But many scientists and health researchers want the standard amount allowed lowered to .02 parts per billion. That’s one five hundredth of the current standard and much of Humboldt’s water tested in the study does not meet that goal.

According to Paul Helliker, General Manager of Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, the public health goal is really “not relevant to whether the water is safe.” He explained, “The State Water Resources Control Board, that sets the [current legal] standard, they factor in many things. It is a full scale analysis.”

Hilliker points out that current Chromium 6 standard for testing is what local water districts are required to meet. The public health goal is “merely a number that is put together that looks at potential health effects mostly from animal studies.” This study, according to Hilliker, doesn’t adequately look at “the risk for human beings.”

He points out that Chromium 6 occurs naturally. Hilliker said that the Humboldt County wells producing most of water in the tests come from so deep that they could not be affected by industrial waste.

According to the manager of the Humboldt CSD, David Hull, the water which tested the highest came from wells that were not currently being used to provide drinking water to local residents.

In addition, Hilliker said that drinking bottled water would not be a good way to avoid Chromium 6.  “Bottled water does not have to go through the rigorous testing we do,” he said. “If you buy water in plastic water bottles, you get all those plastic components leaching into the water.”

There are, however, filters that can be purchased that do remove Chromium 6. In fact, PG&E is using ion exchange water treatment filters to address the drinking water in Hinkley. These, however, are difficult for private consumers to get and use. But reverse osmosis filters which have been certified to remove Chromium 6 can be found in local stores. The  Environmental Working Group has information on which filters might work best for your situation.

Click on the links below to see what test results in different local districts were.

Manila Community Services District

*NOTE: Remember the wells tested did not include private wells which are the water sources for most people in our area.

  • Laytonville Rock


  • You wanna drink “pure” water, you gotta pay.
    So sorry water actually passes through the world in which we live; one wonders where y’all think chromium comes from.

    • combustion processes

      “He points out that Chromium 6 occurs naturally. Hilliker said that the Humboldt County wells producing most of water in the tests come from so deep that they could not be affected by industrial waste.”

      Naturally occurring chromium is usually present as trivalent Cr(III). Hexavalent Cr(VI) in the environment is almost totally derived from human activities [WHO 1990].

  • The filter links you posted show two different types of Chromium filtration systems, i.e. Chromium (Hexavalent) or Chromium (Trivalent). Which type is recommended for our local water contamination?

  • There shouldn’t be any chemical’s in our DRINK ING water.wow!that’s what killed my chocolate lab,cancer.i don’t drink any tap water anywhere.bottled.spring.this article is sad.we do need an Erin!!!

  • Do plants absorb this chromium-6 or reject it. Can I still eat home grown carrots?

    Should we label our produce, like we all want for GMOs?

  • Where does the chromium 6 come from?

    • The local water district managers say ours comes from natural sources. Some Chromium 6 comes from industrial pollution, however.

      • Of course they’re saying that, they see the potential lawsuits if proven they were selling poisoned water as a city/county.
        We have some pretty high cancer rates, even without counting our cancer cluster, Humboldt Hill. Along with the multitudes of industrial waste dumped onto ground/into water by industry here, and theres been aerial spraying of pesticides and herbicides mixed with diesel fuel, well it’s pretty easy to see where it all came from. When the pulp mill on west end road had the ground tested, it was completely toxified. When asked, they said they were jyst dumping that waste onto the ground like they’d always done. I think 50 years of that practice and it could easily leach deep down. The 800′ wells in the central valley are toxic from all the poisons sprayed there.

        • There are veins of rare earth mineral soils all through our county. There are parcels near me where the BLM owns their mineral rights. Chromium 6 is present naturally in a lot of our local soils. Not saying industry hasn’t polluted our county, or the water, increasing cancer rates, but it is very likely that in this case it is naturally occurring.

        • Wasn’t a pulp mill on West End Road. It was a flakeboard plant. Tons of chems. Humboldt Hill cancer cluster may have begun with the dirty nuclear plant that was the state’s first to open and the first to close. Despite the Chromium stats, I’d take or water from the Mad River wells over most of the state’s water anytime!!

  • Thanks for that info kym,it’s relevant to this article.and wasn’t sure

  • If you think the higher ups didn’t know this long before the testing, than you kidding yourselves. This was well known among a select group of upper management, executives and other officials within our county years ago around the time that movie came out. It seems to me the numbers might even be lower now than they had been back then.

    • loves to blame others

      Get over yourself. They would be idiots to not think that an area that contains large amounts of chromium in the ground would also has chromium in the water that passes through that ground.

      Get the pitchforks and masks, we got to find someone to hang for this travesty!!! Let it be my old bosses.

  • All that water tested was close to the urban part of Humboldt. Anyone testing local Sohum water?

  • The sample dates are old, at least in Fortuna. The latest dates are 2014. What does that say. Nothing!

  • Anyone know where we can test our water? I’d like to test our well water and Garberville’s water. We have a UV filter at home, but apparently that isn’t effective against Chromium 6. We’ve had our water tested at the lab in Arcata but I don’t think they tested for everything.

    • You have to ask for specific things besides house hold test. North coast labs in arcata is where you go you just need to tell them what it is you are searching for.

  • This is bs, I know the water here is contaminated And we shouldn’t let them get away with it, let’s do something about it

  • I got a great water filter from aquafeel solutions! Contact Jose Granados at (559) 374-1420. They have great service and education. The water filter is at the top of the technology!!

  • I was always sceptical about drinking tap water after it’s been rung out from the sewerage treatment plant, there have been reports of pharma meds being in tap water, if they can’t get the med’s out how do they get the turds out?
    So take your pick, it’s either cancer or bad breath…
    I don’t drink water cause fish do funny things in it…

    • Are you saying that you think your tap water comes from the sewage treatment plant effluent? Because that’s not the case (at least around here…I have heard of pilot projects elsewhere). If you live in the Humboldt Bay area and your tap water comes from the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, it comes from deep wells under the Mad River, between Arcata and Blue Lake. If you live in another town with city water, you can look into where their water comes from, but it’s not coming straight out of a sewage treatment plant.

  • Honeydew Bridge Chump

    Rims on growdozers…

    Tainting water.

    Where’s Julia Butterfly?


    • if the contamination of chromium would be coming from any dozers, it would be the old cuts made by the logging, mining, and rock quarry dozers, exposing sub soils rich in natural chromium, that have been washing into our river system for 100 years. Julia Butterfly picked the right hillside.

  • nature or evil mankind?

    It is unfortunate that our naturally occurring chromium is being confused with industrial waste which changes the way in which we approach the issue. This is especially relevant as our region is ripe with conspiratorial thinking and, often reasonably, anti capitalist sentiment.

    Our region is generally uplifted ocean floor. Along many of the fault lines we can get intrusions of sulphuric mineralization. These intrusions contain many heavier elements from the mantle that get squeezed into the rifts. The abandoned Horse Mountain Copper Mine is an example. At that location the chromium and copper were in substantial enough amounts to profitable mine prior to WW2. We also have another carcinogen in our area which is a fibrouse form of serpantine, asbestos. Here is a link showing multiple chromium mines along Route 1 which is the backbone of the east edge of our county and decidedly up-flow from much of our water. http://www.mindat.org/loc-217425.html

    Another point of evidence of a natural source is the wide distribution of the Chromium which correlates with a small % of natural occurrence throughout rather than from a specific site or incidence.

    I hope this helps.

  • With all this cultivation going on in this county is it not common sense that the run off from these massive grows are going into our water source. I am more concerned with the diesel fuel, fertilizers, deer deterrent, rat and rodent killer, insect/pest sprays and the chemicals being used to grow these abnormally large plants. We have people coming from all over the world that have access to chemicals that are totally banned here and they bring it, ship it …. you name it. You can’t convince me that our best interests and health as fellow human beings are even considered in these money hungry growers minds. Organic, chemical free, non GMO is B.S! I think its all genetically modified with all the different names and THC levels of potency??? This is going to be the next cause of CANCER rate increase for area residents living within the Emerald Triangle. I’m with the comment before mine its evil mankind.

    • Yeah because the miners, loggers and ranchers were so much more responsible than the growers over the last 100 years? And now to get their permits and water legal, the growers who want to stay are going to have 10 years to fix any “legacy problems”, including all the shitty skid roads and culverts criss crossing the neighborhoods from rampant resource extraction. Consider also that the average 40 acre parcel has less than 2 acres under cultivation, effectively protecting 95 percent of the land, as long as the 2 acres is farmed responsibly. Sure, there are bad actors, bad apples, and people who don’t give a damn about the land, water, or the law, but they will be weeded out in the next few years, and the core of the grower community is deeply concerned and involved in mitigating these issues. Always beware anyone who uses “common sense” as a talking point, or anyone who thinks that because people breed plants and call them different names, that they are GMO and cancer causing…. You might as well throw Luther Burbank under the dozer for naming so many apples. Also, point of interest, the “evil of mankind” poster, that you seem to think you agree with, was making the opposite point, that our chromium is naturally occurring. Maybe you should re-read their comment.

  • “water in Humboldt County contains Chromium 6, a known cancer causing chemical” — gimme a break, there’s pretty much NOTHING you can do that will NOT cause you to possibly get some kind of cancer. Not saying our water doesn’t have this ‘chromium 6’ in it, but I don’t see how our water could be worse for you then any of the chemicals that the CITYS put in there water. I know for a fact they put chlorine in the water pretty much everywhere. Chlorine is a chemical too, don’t tell me you can’t get cancer from drinking chlorinated water your whole life.

  • Be happy we don’t live in Flint, Michigan

  • This has been the best run of comments I’ve read in years.

  • What do you make of this?

    I just had my Arcata city water tested at North Coast Laboratories, LTD (off of West End Rd).


    Analyte – Hexavalent Chromium
    Method – EPA 218.7
    Result – 0.30
    RL – 0.050
    Units – ug/L
    RL Mult – 1
    Prepared – 10/20/16
    Analyzed – 10/20/16

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