SAN FRANCISCO — California public health officials on Thursday submitted a safe drinking water standard for the cancer-causing chemical highlighted in the film “Erin Brockovich.”
The proposed standard submitted by California Department of Public Health comes weeks after an Alameda County judge ordered officials to adopt the standard for the chemical hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6.
State water quality tests conducted between 2000 and 2011 showed that about a third of 7,000 drinking water sources tested had hexavalent chromium levels at or above a preliminary benchmark set by the California EPA.
State and federal standards currently limit chromium, which includes chromium-6 and chromium-3, which is harmless. California’s new standard would limit chromium-6.
The chemical is a form of industrial pollution; it is used in the production of stainless steel, leather tanning and as an anti-corrosive.
The harms of hexavalent chromium were exposed by the film “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts, which detailed the case of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. The utility was accused of leaking the contaminant into the groundwater of Hinckley, a small desert town, causing health problems.
The California Legislature passed a law in 2001 that directed public health agencies to set an enforceable drinking water standard for the chemical by 2004. That was delayed after a scientific dispute over whether it was a carcinogenic when ingested in water, as opposed to inhaled.
In 2007, federal scientists at the National Toxicology Program confirmed that chromium-6 is also carcinogenic when ingested.
The California EPA next set a preliminary benchmark in creating a drinking water standard. But in 2010, the agency recommended even stricter limits after research showed that fetuses, infants and children were more susceptible than adults to the effects of the chemical.
That new goal was set last year at .02 parts of hexavalent chromium per billion parts of water.
Still, the public health department’s regulations proposed Thursday recommend setting a standard at 10 parts per billion, a magnitude level higher than the goal.
Dave Mazzera, acting division chief for the Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management at the state public health agency, said the recommended standard is higher than the .02 goal primarily because achieving .02-levels were cost prohibitive and not technologically feasible for water agencies.
The department estimates that the new standard, known as the “Maximum Contaminant Level,” or MCL, would affect more than 100 water districts in California at an annual cost about $156 million combined.
“Economics was the key driver,” Mazzera said in a conference call with reporters. “We’ve determined at this level that this was the best balance between costs ... and public health protection.”
There is currently no federal or state standard specifically for chromium-6. Last year, the U.S. EPA released recommendations for enhanced monitoring of the chemical in public water systems and is conducting a review of chromium-6.
Lawmakers from communities grappling with chromium-6 pollution in their water supply applauded the standard.
“While I would have liked to have seen a lower level, the setting of this standard is a welcome first step,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, said in a statement. “I look forward to public input on the proposed level, which is significantly higher than the public health goal.”
Public comment on the new standard begins Aug. 23.
The department plans to hold public meetings on the new standard in Northern and Southern California on Oct. 11.