Krishna Feldman has more to worry about than students returning books on time. She is the librarian at Ohlone Elementary School in Santa Cruz County, where testing found toxic levels of a contaminant called chromium-6 in water coming out of drinking fountains.
“Last month, we found out we had another kindergartener who has leukemia at our school,” Feldman said. “We have a new case of cancer at our school almost every year.”
Ohlone Elementary is not alone. Testing has found the contaminant in thousands of drinking water wells across California. Water in all but seven counties is contaminated with chromium-6, a chemical that can cause cancer, kidney, and liver problems, and is expensive to remove for already-stressed water systems and ratepayers.
Erin Brockovich drew attention to the health impacts of the chemical in the 1990s after she investigated links between cancer clusters and the chemical in the Southern California town of Hinkley. Hollywood captured her story in a film that brought the issue to the attention of people far beyond the small town.
California has yet to comprehensively deal with pervasive contamination, but that may soon change.
The State Water Resources Control Board held public workshops this week as it moves into what might be one of the final phases of the process of regulating the contaminant. They looked specifically at the costs of cleaning up the problem after the board published more data and analysis of the extent of chromium-6 contamination last week.
“[It] shows that it continues to be a very extensive problem affecting thousands, if not millions of people,” said Andria Ventura, the legislative and policy director of Clean Water Action in California.
The California Department of Public Health first passed a law in 2014 determining how much chromium-6 was acceptable in drinking water, after a previous attempt to regulate it through the legislature failed. It established a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts-per-billion, which meant water systems could not provide water that contained more than that amount of chromium-6.
While some of the worst systems had tested with levels as high as 50 parts-per-billion, the majority fell below that limit. Still, research has shown chromium-6 is dangerous at levels as low as .002 parts-per-billion.
“That gap is huge,” Ventura said. “A lot of Californians, that will continue to drink this very toxic material and give it to their children.”
The risks of chromium-6 depend on how a person encounters it. Breathing it in can cause lung cancer, primarily a concern for people who work in industries like chrome plating, paint, and oil drilling, among others, that use the chemical in industrial processes.
Drinking water contaminated with chromium-6 has been linked to kidney and liver problems, and more recently, stomach cancer. A water board white paper found that the 2014 level would still expose one in every 2,000 people to cancer risk.
Industrial work like wood processing, metal plating, and gas compression can leach chromium-6 into drinking the water. Coal, oil and gas combustion can release the contaminant into the atmosphere — itself a dangerous source of exposure. The chemical does sometimes occur naturally at unsafe levels, too.
“It’s shocking, painful, and really unjust,” said Mayra Hernandez, a Santa Cruz County-based organizer with the Community Water Center, an environmental justice group. She added that her group has found high levels of the contaminant throughout the Central Coast, mostly from naturally occurring sources.
“It is far past time for California to do right by our environmental justice communities impacted by chromium-6,” Hernandez said.
The 2014 limit the public health department set was intended to reduce health risks while balancing the substantial costs of cleaning up water. In 2017, the lobbying firm California Manufacturers and Technology Association won a lawsuit against the board. The ruling found the board had not adequately studied what it would cost to clean up the problem, invalidating the earlier regulations.
Some systems will struggle more as California moves towards regulating chromium-6. California’s 2015 Safe Drinking Water Plan found that small, community water systems overall accounted for the majority of those that fail to meet safety standards for a range of contaminants.
Those systems struggle to keep up, in part because they serve fewer customers who already face mounting water bills. Such water systems, according to the board, often lack the resources to accommodate additional spending — like getting chromium-6 out of the water.
A board report found regulating chromium-6 to a level of 10 parts-per-billion could cost the smallest systems $5,600 annually, and the largest would face additional annual costs of just $65.
“Ultimately, that money will have to come from their ratepayers,” said Ken Sansone, a lawyer who works on water contamination issues. “The choice is quite stark: pay more for water treatment or drink water that the state has said contains unsafe levels of contaminants.”
While the smallest systems face the highest costs, they also serve a minority of Californians. Advocates argue larger systems that provide water to most people in the state can spread out the expense of treatment over more customers, bringing the cost into an affordable range.
Ventura with Clean Water Action says looking exclusively at how much treatment could cost water systems fails to capture the complete economic harm from chromium-6 — past and future.
“Cancer is expensive. Losing a family member who can't work is expensive,” Ventura said. “Dealing with the tragedies of other health issues and reproductive problems is expensive.”
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