CA court requires state to enact drinking water standards for dangerous carcinogen

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA, July 23, 2013 -- The California Superior Court of Alameda recently required the state's Department of Public Health to proceed with setting a standard to protect millions of Californians from unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, cancer-causing chemical, in drinking water.

"Protecting our drinking water supply from this carcinogen is critical to the health and safety of millions of Californians," said Nicholas Morales, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "An estimated 31 million people are exposed to unsafe levels of cancer-causing hex chrome due to government inaction. Now, the department's focus should be on setting a standard that adequately protects public health."

Hexavalent chromium enters the drinking water supply by running off from industrial operations into surface waters or leaching from soil into groundwater. Communities adjacent to industrial facilities using the carcinogen or Superfund sites are among those most highly exposed to the pollution. People can be exposed to hexavalent chromium by drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, by inhaling it, or by exposure to contaminated soils.

Ruling from the bench, Judge Evelio Grillo directed the agency to propose a drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium by the end of August 2013. Following the public comment period on the rule, the court will consider any further deadlines in light of the volume and nature of public comments.

An EWG analysis of official records from the California Department of Public Health's water quality testing conducted between 2000 and 2011 revealed that about one-third of the more than 7,000 drinking water sources sampled were contaminated with hexavalent chromium at levels that exceed safe limits. These water sources are spread throughout 52 of 58 counties, impacting an estimated 31 million Californians.

NRDC and EWG's suit contended that the department must rapidly proceed to set a "Maximum Contaminant Level" -- the maximum concentration of a chemical that is allowed in public drinking water systems -- for hexavalent chromium in drinking water. The California EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment announced a final "Public Health Goal" for hexavalent chromium in drinking water in July 2011, a preliminary step for the agency to adopt a drinking water standard. The goal was set at 0.02 parts per billion, a level that does not pose a significant health risk to people. The agency now must move quickly to set the maximum limit for hexavalent chromium as close to that safe level as feasible.

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