Drinking water in more than 150 New Jersey water systems contained the carcinogenic chemical chromium 6 at levels that exceeded a health limit recommended by California scientists when the local systems were tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a national analysis published on Tuesday.
The study by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy nonprofit, concluded that 218 million Americans in all 50 states, or some two-thirds of the population, are drinking water that contains the chemical at levels that are above the proposed California health limit but below current limits adopted by both that state and the federal government.
The chemical, best known for having been exposed as a threat to public health by the environmental campaigner Erin Brockovich, a battle depicted in the movie starring Julia Roberts, was found in different concentrations around New Jersey when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested water systems in 1,370 counties across the country from 2013 to 2015.
The EWG combined the previously published the EPA data with a health limit proposed by the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment to calculate the national population that is exposed to the chemical in drinking water at above a limit of 0.02 parts per billion (ppb) recommended by the California panel.
The recommended standard was far stricter than a 10 ppb level that is now set as a legal limit in California, the only state to regulate the chemical so far, EWG said. It argued that the much less-rigorous limit reflected commercial and political pressures that were exerted on regulators in California and other states.
“Federal regulations are stalled by a chemical industry challenge that could mean no national regulation of a chemical state scientists in California and elsewhere say causes cancer even when ingested at extraordinarily low levels,” the EWG report said.
Chromium 6, which is used in steel making, chrome plating, and, as in the Brockovich case, lowering water temperature in the cooling towers of power plants, has been linked to lung cancer, liver damage, and reproductive and developmental problems.
In New Jersey, some of the highest concentrations were found in the Ridgewood Water system in Bergen County, where the chemical was found at above the proposed California level in 56 locations with an average of 0.398 ppb, or almost 20 times the recommended California standard. In Burlington County, the average level was 0.491 ppb in the Mount Holly system operated by New Jersey American Water, according to the EPA data.
A representative of New Jersey American Water did not return a phone call seeking comment.
While many New Jersey utilities exceeded California’s recommended health limit, none topped California’s legal limit of 10 ppb, the data show.
New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a state panel of scientific advisers, considered recommending a chromium 6 health limit of 0.07 ppb in 2010. The proposal never reached the desk of DEP Commissioner Bob Martin because the DWQI stopped meeting at that time because of a shortage of members, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP.
The DWQI resumed its work in 2014 and is due to meet this week to issue its recommendation for a maximum contaminant limit on another toxic chemical, PFOA, which has also been linked to cancer and other illnesses.
New Jersey currently follows the EPA’s recommended guidance limit of 100 ppb for total chromium — a combination of chromium 6 and chromium 3 — in drinking water, Hajna said.
Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist who chairs the DWQI, said he couldn’t comment on what the panel considered in 2010 because he was not involved with it then. But he said chromium 6 could become part of the DWQI’s work in the future.
“The current NJ DWQI in the future will likely review previously proposed levels, if nothing else to see if new information and current exposure warrants the chemical of concern to be assessed,” Cooper wrote in an email.
Bryan Goodman, director of product communications for the American Chemistry Council, said the EWG report contained no new data on chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium, in the water supply.
Goodman said that when the chemical is found in ground water, it is present at low levels that are well below the EPA’s national drinking water standard. He said there is limited scientific data on how human health could be affected by low naturally occurring levels of the chemical, and so the council has supported third-party research into the issue.
“This is a positive example of industry supporting independent, peer-reviewed research to inform regulatory decisions about hexavalent chromium and drinking water,” Goodman wrote in an email.
North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality recommended a limit of 0.06 ppb, but, like New Jersey, has not set a legal limit for chromium 6 in tap water, EWG said.
“In both states, scientists’ health-based recommendations were at odds with the decisions of politically appointed regulators,” the EWG paper said.
Bill Walker, who wrote the report with the EWG’s Senior Scientist David Andrews, said the group was publishing its analysis as the latest stage of a campaign in which it conducted its own tests for chromium 6 in 35 cities in 2010 and found the chemical in 25 systems at levels exceeding the California health standard.
In its new study, EWG published a list of 22 major metropolitan water systems serving at least 1 million people where the chemical exceeded the recommended California limit. None of the systems exceeded California’s legal limit.
“We want people to be aware that the EPA is dragging its feet on setting a national drinking water standard; that the chemical industry and the electrical power industry have delayed that process, and that as a result of industry influence, the EPA might eventually decide to do nothing,” Walker said.