Politicized Science: The 'Erin Brockovich Chemical'

EWG exclaims that the levels in Norman are “200 times” higher than a proposed California standard -- as if that warrants panic.  But the proposed standard in California is absurdly low at 0.06 parts per billion. EPA’s safe level for total chromium is 100 parts per billion.

EWG dismisses EPA’s total chromium standard, saying: “EPA has not set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium [chromium-6] in tap water nationally and does not require water utilities to test for it.” In reality, EPA’s standard for total chromium assumes that all chromium found in drinking water samples is chromium-6, according to a recent EPA press statement. In other words, the standard deems water containing up to 100 parts per billion of chromium-6 as safe to drink, and regulations ensure levels do not exceed that amount.

Despite these realities, the EWG scare campaign has gained many headlines in part because of chromium-6’s notoriety from the film, Erin Brockovich. It featured Julia Roberts as a sassy legal secretary who pushes her boss to sue Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for contaminating the drinking water of the small town of Hinkley, California. Based on a true story, the lawyers filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the company allowed chromium-6 to leach into the water and cause a cancer cluster.

However, like EWG’s claims, Brockovich’s case against chromium-6 didn’t hold water. If chromium-6 caused cancer in Hinkley, one would expect to find the specific types of cancers and exposures associated with the chemical. As noted, studies have found associations between chromium-6 and two types of cancer -- lung and nasal -- among workers who inhaled large amounts.  Yet Hinkley did not suffer from an elevated number of lung or nasal cancers, and residents were exposed to much lower levels by ingestion rather than inhalation.

Instead, the bulk of Hinkley plaintiffs had a number of different unrelated aliments -- breast cancer, prostate cancer, arthritis, the flu, and club feet -- likely caused by a variety of different sources rather than a single chemical, let alone chromium-6.

Moreover, researchers have never found evidence of any kind of cancer cluster in Hinkley. Recent research has again confirmed that cancer rate for the area is actually lower than that of other, similar areas.

Nonetheless, because the company didn’t want to continue a protracted legal battle, it settled with 650 litigants for $333 million. The trial lawyers took $133 million of the winnings off the top and gave Brockovich $2 million.

If EPA imposes an onerous chromium-6 standard because of activist pressures, public health benefits are likely to be zero. The compliance costs could be high, particularly for relatively poor, rural communities that have few resources to waste.