Dangerous levels of a cancer-causing chemical that was featured in the 2000 Julia Roberts movie Erin Brockovich are in tap water of millions of Americans.
The nonprofit research organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported on Sept. 20 that high levels of the carcinogenic chemical chromium-6 have been found in the water supplies of about 200 million Americans across all 50 U.S. states.
Also known as hexavalent chromium, chromium-6 occurs naturally but is produced for use in manufacturing dyes and pigments, steelmaking, chrome plating, preserving leather and wood, as well as to lower the temperature of waters in cooling towers of electrical power plants.
The chemical is also found in the ashes from coal power plants that are dumped in unlined pits posing risks to up to thousands of private wells and water supplies. Some water treatment methods for removing other contaminants may also increase levels of chromium-6.
Studies have shown that breathing in the particles of the chemical can cause lung cancer prompting the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set strict limits for the amount of airborne chromium-6 in the workplace.
Besides being associated with elevated risks for cancer in both humans and animals, the chemical is also linked to reproductive problems and liver damage. It poses greater risks to infants and children, individuals with poorly functioning livers and those who take antacids.
EWG examined data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from water systems throughout the country between 2013 and 2015 and found that the tap water used by 218 million Americans contains chromium-6 levels that can be considered as dangerous.
"The tests found chromium-6 in almost 90 percent of the water systems sampled. Oklahoma, Arizona and California had the highest average statewide levels and the greatest shares of detections above California's public health goal. Among major cities, Phoenix had, by far, the highest average level, at almost 400 times the California health goal, and St. Louis and Houston also had comparatively high levels," the EWG report read.
EWG said that if left untreated, these dangerous levels of chromium-6 in tap water may cause more than 12,000 new cases of cancer by the end of the century.
"Whether it is chromium-6, PFOA or lead, the public is looking down the barrel of a serious water crisis across the country that has been building for decades," Brockovich said in a statement.
The EWG calls on EPA and state regulators to come up with drinking water standards. It also wants to hold chromium-6 polluters accountable as well as make polluters contribute for cleaning up the water.