Cancer causing metal found in drinking water of NY and NJ towns

NEW YORK — A metal that can cause cancer was found in the drinking water of counties across New York and New Jersey, according to a report released Tuesday.

Hexavalent chromium, which was featured in the movie "Erin Brockovich," is in the drinking water of 218 million people across the country at levels higher than recommended by some scientists, according to the Environmental Working Group report. The metal, also known as chromium-6, could lead to 12,000 cases of cancer nationwide.

“Houston, we have a problem,” said Erin Brockovich, whom the movie was based on. "More than 20 years ago, we learned that this dangerous chemical poisoned the tap water of California communities, and now these tests and EWG’s report show that roughly 218 million Americans are being served drinking water polluted with potentially dangerous levels of this known carcinogen."

The report looked at 60,000 water samples collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA does not have a federal drinking standard for chromium-6 specifically; they have one for total chromium - a combination of the safe chromium-3 and chromium-6. The federal standard for total chromium in drinking water is 100 parts per billion.

"Ensuring safe drinking water for all Americans is a top priority for EPA," the EPA said in a statement. "The agency has taken many actions to improve information on chromium and its potential health risks in drinking water. EPA and states are responsible for ensuring that public water systems are in compliance with the current standard for total chromium."

Chromium-6 is found at or above .02 parts per billion in 90 percent of the water samples studied. California's Environmental Protection Agency has a public health goal of no more than .02 parts per billion, but their current legal limit for the metal in drinking water is 10 parts per billion.

"Unfortunately, we're behind the eight ball on this," said David Pringle, director of Clean Water Action New Jersey.

There's no need to panic and stock up on bottled water, Pringle said. But people should call for greater protection of water.

Some scientists recommended a maximum concentration of 0.06 parts per billion following a 2008 report by the National Toxicology Program; the report found mice and rats that drank high levels of chromium-6 grew cancerous tumors.

Chromium-6 concentrations as high as 25.59 parts per billion were found throughout the country. Locally, concentrations range from about .03 parts per billion to about .43 parts per billion.

“Americans deserve to know if there are potentially harmful levels of a cancer-causing chemical in their tap water,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the report.  "It's long past time for the EPA to take action to protect Americans from chromium-6.”

To search for chromium-6 levels in your zip code, click here.