Erin Brockovich became rich and famous by promoting the notion that people in Hinkley, CA, got cancer because of hexavalent chromium (Chromium-6) in drinking water. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) settled a 1993 lawsuit for $333 million, rather than risk trial by a jury frightened by a steady drumbeat of horror stories from lawyers, activists, celebrities, “journalists,” and hired “experts.” The lawyers got $134 million in fees, and Ms. Brockovich pocketed a cool $2-million bonus – plus movie royalties and other cash.
Now Ms. B is trying to reprise her California success, by bringing the Cr-6 saga to North Carolina. She and the eco-activist organization Environmental Working Group have sent a well-publicized letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, urging it to set tougher standards for Cr-6. They and certain North Carolina health officials claim as little as 0.07 part per billion of chromium-6 in drinking water may cause cancer.
Not long ago, scientific instruments couldn’t even detect parts per billion (ppb). That’s not surprising, since 1 ppb is equivalent to 1 second in 33 years or 50 drops of water in an official Olympic-sized swimming pool (50 by 25 by 2 meters – 2 teaspoons in 660,000 gallons).
Many fruits and vegetables carry carcinogenic toxins to help them combat viruses and insect pests, Oakland Research Institute senior scientist Bruce Ames points out. Apple seeds and juice contain arsenic (about 8 ppb in juice), coffee and tea also contain carcinogens, and numerous chemicals associated with industrial processes (lead, zinc, mercury, chromium and others) are also found naturally in the soils, rocks, and waters around us. Those toxins can cause cancer in rodents, when fed in large enough doses.
We also know 80 milligrams (mg) of aspirin can help prevent strokes, and 650 mg can relieve headaches. But 4,000 mg in 24 hours can be toxic, and 100 regular strength tablets can kill a 150-pound adult. Even swallowing seawater can be deadly. So can guzzling 1.6 gallons of pure water.
For all of us, the relevant questions are: What level of chromium-6 is safe in drinking water? And is Cr-6 in water really a concern at all, since any real risk that may exist appears to be from the airborne variety?
North Carolina state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo says levels detected in state waters represent risks higher than what he and some other public health experts consider safe. Some say there is “no safe level” for exposure to “geotoxic carcinogens” like Cr-6. Dr. Rudo wants the state to retain a 0.07 ppb threshold level, which he says represents a maximum acceptable adult lifetime cancer risk of one in one million.
He persuaded the state to issue “do not drink” letters for people who were using water from wells near Duke Energy coal ash disposal sites. Other state and national experts disagreed, noting that there clearly are safe levels for most chemicals and radiation. Indeed, many actually improve human health.
It is now well known that improved health, stress tolerance, and resistance to cancer and other diseases often results from exposure to low doses of chemicals or radiation that would be toxic or lethal at higher levels. This phenomenon is known as hormesis. Similarly, multivitamins often include chromium and other metals that are toxic at high doses, but essential for good bodily health.
Many peer-reviewed studies support chromium-6 levels at least as high as North Carolina’s puzzling dual standard of 10 ppb for well water and 100 ppb for drinking water. The EPA itself sets 100 ppb for drinking water and says airborne Cr-6 is much more worrisome than waterborne varieties.
No one else uses a 0.07 standard, which is equal to 3.5 drops in an Olympic pool or 1 second in 467 years. Even ultra-cautious California sets its standard at 10 ppb, though some want it reduced to 0.06 ppb.
Equally important, ability to detect a substance does not mean it poses a risk. Cancer is certainly scary, but the risk of getting cancer is not the same as dying from it. And people routinely accept risks of dying from activities they happily engage in daily.
The National Safety Council puts the lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash at 1 in 113 – 8,850 times greater than Dr. Rudo’s lifetime risk of contracting cancer from Cr-6. The lifetime risk of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 136,011 – while the risk of dying next year from accidental drowning is roughly equal to the Rudo lifetime risk of getting cancer from chromium in water. See this chart.
That brings us back to the 1993 Brockovich case. It blamed Chromium-6 for an entire smorgasbord of diseases afflicting Hinkley residents, but never linked to this chemical. Indeed, Cr-6 has actually been linked only to lung and nasal cancer, and only when inhaled in high doses over many years. Ingestion via drinking water has not resulted in ill effects among study subjects, according to EPA and other experts.
In fact, as investigative reporter Michael Fumento learned, no ill effects were found even in rodents given Cr-6 at 25 parts per million – 250 times higher than EPA’s 100 ppb safety standard, and 357,000 times higher than the 0.07 part per billion that Dr. Rudo wants for North Carolina. Other studies evaluated people living next to landfills that had very high Cr-6 concentrations, and likewise found no ill effects.
Perhaps most telling, a Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study evaluated 52,000 workers employed for up to 25 years at several PG&E plants, including the Hinkley facility. Not only was their incidence of cancer no higher than for California residents in general; the PG&E workers’ death rates were actually much lower than for California’s population at large. Hormesis, perhaps?
Equally relevant: In 2015, the NC Department of Environmental Quality tested 24 wells located two to five miles away from the nearest coal plant or coal ash deposit. Twenty of those wells received “do not drink” advisories, because their Cr-6 levels exceeded Rudo-recommended thresholds.
Citing those tests and further examination of relevant scientific studies, state Health Director Randall Williams, MD later decided the advisories should be rescinded. Cr-6 levels in wells far away from coal facilities mean naturally occurring chromium affects water all around North Carolina, he noted, and risks associated with drinking the water are actually extremely low.
Williams also pointed out that chromium-6 is found in some 70% to 90% of all water supplies in the United States. Telling tens of millions of people not to drink their water makes little sense. Neither does holding several hundred North Carolina well owners to a standard that applies virtually nowhere else; nor does holding NC well water to a much stricter standard than the state applies to its drinking water.
Many activist groups use climate, chemical, and cancer scares to advance campaigns to shut down coal-fired power plants. Forcing utility companies to spend billions of dollars relocating millions of tons of coal ash is a good tactic, especially when it involves the “precautionary principle,” which essentially says:
We must avoid any risks of using chemicals, fossil fuels, and other technologies – but not even discuss the risks of not using them. We must emphasize minor, alleged, manageable, exaggerated and even fabricated risks that a technology might cause – but ignore the risks the technology would reduce or prevent.
That double standard helps advance activist agendas – at high costs. Forcing utility companies to spend billions relocating coal ash would shut down many coal-fired power plants, causing electricity prices to soar, severely impacting factories, businesses, hospitals, schools, minorities, and blue-collar families.
Numerous workers would be laid off or forced to take multiple lower paying part-time jobs, with few or no healthcare or other benefits. Medical experts say this would bring greater stress and depression, reduced nutrition, sleep deprivation, greater alcohol, drug, spousal, and child abuse, and higher suicide, stroke, heart attack, and cancer rates. It would mean every life supposedly saved by shutting down power plants would be offset by impaired health and real lives lost as a result.
Simply put, chromium risks are not as dire as Dr. Rudo and Ms. Brockovich have been saying. Indeed, eliminating coal-based electricity is likely to cause far more serious and widespread problems.