Health and Hollywood

State debunks Erin Brockovich concerns about chromium 6

<i>Erin Brockovich</i>, which starred Julia Roberts in the title role, “exposed” concerns about chromiumcontamination.

Erin Brockovich, which starred Julia Roberts in the title role, “exposed” concerns about chromiumcontamination.

How often is it that a movie brings about a statewide health concern? That’s exactly what happened last year when a movie was made about busty, brassy legal aide Erin Brockovich and her successful battle against Pacific Gas & Electric.

Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as the title character, detailed Brockovich’s crusade to win justice for the residents of Hinkley, California, whose groundwater had been contaminated by chromium 6 coming from PG&E equipment. Once the successful lawsuit burst onto the silver screen, counties around the state scrambled to test their wells for chromium 6, which was thought to cause cancer and other health problems if ingested.

Sacramento News & Review reported earlier this year (see “Cleavage and Chromium,” SN&R, January 4) that seven of Sacramento’s 50 wells and half of Davis’ 21 wells tested positive for chromium 6. Some residents and city officials panicked and used the movie’s scientific results to demand action.

Allan Hirsch with California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) believes that, though the movie did help prompt a state study of the issue, the need for the chromium 6 study was mostly on a scientific basis.

“Though the movie brought attention to it, there simply has not been a great deal of studying when [chromium 6] is ingested,” said Hirsch.

And now, the results are in. A report recently released by the California Department of Health Services (DHS) concluded that chromium 6 in drinking water does not pose a threat to the public.

“We found no basis in either the epidemiological or animal data published in the literature for concluding that orally ingested chromium 6 is a carcinogen,” the report concluded.

The study that prompted the original fears surrounding chromium 6 was found to be flawed by the committee that prepared the recent DHS report. The study, conducted in 1968, is the only study that examines the long-term effects of chromium 6 ingestion. The committee has advised the OEHHA not to use the study in future assessments because of its flaws. The OEHHA will also not be using the study to determine the allowable amount of chromium 6 in the state’s water. However, the new DHS report will be used as a guide to setting a drinking water standard.

“We’re going to use the report as guidance,” said Hirsch. “We’re going to proceed with our public health goal in mind.”

Even though the new study found no evidence of a threat to public health, the DHS and the state government are working hard to dilute these myths and rumors surrounding chromium 6 following the success of Erin Brockovich, and to study the matter in more detail.

“Chromium 6 certainly was not a high-profile issue,” said Hirsch. “The combination of the movie and media accounts focused public attention on it.”

The DHS is planning a lengthy study to quell the public fears regarding chromium 6. Since it is known to be a carcinogen when inhaled—but not when ingested via water—the concern is still there that large amounts of chromium 6 in the water could still cause cancer in certain situations.

DHS is supporting a planned five-year study by the National Toxicology Project that could confirm that there are no cancer risks related to the ingestion of chromium 6. The study will also determine the maximum amount of chromium 6 that would be allowed in the state’s water wells to ensure the public’s safety.

Back in January, Hirsch told the Sacramento News & Review that chromium 6 should be considered a carcinogen until test results proved otherwise. Hirsch feels the five-year study is necessary to be absolutely sure.

“At some levels chromium 6 is still dangerous. You don’t want to drink too much of it,” said Hirsch. “There is still a need for a drinking water standard for chromium 6. [The study] will hopefully come up with definitive data on whether or not chromium 6 causes cancer when ingested.”

The California State Legislature is trying to speed up the institution of a drinking water standard by setting deadlines for the DHS. Senate Bill 351, which is awaiting Governor Gray Davis’ approval, would require the DHS to adopt a standard for the amount of chromium 6 allowed in the state’s drinking water by January 2004.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is waiting for those official results before they attempt to clean up the valley’s water supply.

“Our agency relies on OEHHA for their recommendations,” said Jon Marshack, an environmental specialist for the board. “We’re trying to hold off on making permanent decisions regarding chromium 6 until we see final results from them.”

Marshack added that, to his knowledge, no valley residents have called to complain or inquire about the issues surrounding chromium 6. Until the next study is completed by the OEHHA, the amount of total chromium (consisting of chromium 6, and the less-toxic chromium 3) allowed in the state’s water supply will stay at 50 parts per billion (ppb). If the study finds those levels to be harmful to the public, the standard will be adjusted and the state will begin the clean-up process to remove toxic levels of chromium 6 from the water.

Since chromium 6 reportedly does not cause cancer, some may wonder how it could have ailed all those people living in Hinkley that were featured in Erin Brockovich.

The recent study addressed that by reporting on the mortality rate of the communities surrounding the PG&E gas compressors that leaked the chromium 6 into the groundwater in Hinkley. The study found that the mortality rate, specifically deaths caused by cancer, in those communities was “not significantly different” than in other communities around the state.

So what really caused the residents of Hinkley to get sick? No one really knows for sure, and calls to both Brockovich and PG&E—which paid a $350 million settlement in the case—weren’t returned by press time.