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.)
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.