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A new report says some Kentuckians could be drinking a cancer-causing chemical called chromium-6.
Chromium-3 is an essential human dietary nutrient and can be found in many vegetables, fruits, meats, grains and yeast. It is known to enhance insulin, as well as help metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Chromium-6, however, is a toxic form of the mineral. While this form does occur naturally in the environment, from the erosion of chromium deposits, chromium-6 can also be produced by industrial processes. The EPA has reported instances of chromium-6 being released into the environment from industrial pollution — leakage, poor storage or inadequate industrial waste disposal practices.
Studies of chromium-6 have established that breathing the particles can cause lung cancer. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets strict limits for levels of airborne chromium-6 in the workplace. The chemical has also been connected to liver damage, reproductive problems and developmental harm, according to the EWG, and presents greater risks to infants and children, people who take antacids, and people with poorly functioning livers.
The Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy group, analyzed data collected from samples of drinking water from all 50 states by the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 85 Kentucky counties tested, the highest levels of chromium-6 were found in the samples from Daviess County.
The average level of chromium-6 found in Daviess County was 1.12 parts per billion, which according to Bill Walker, EWG managing editor, equates to a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The EPA has imposed a limit for chromium of 100 parts per billion. But that includes both chromium-6 and chromium-3. The latter is an essential element for human function. However, too much can cause skin rashes.
Walker said the EPA bases its limit on the toxicity of chromium-3, not the more dangerous chromium-6.
“It’s two things mixed together and dumped into drinking water, and EPA says we have a standard to cover the combination of these things,” Walker said. “But don’t have a standard for the individual one, which happens to be more dangerous.
Chromium-6 is the carcinogen that was mentioned in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” It is found in coal-burning power plants, used in leather tanning and in the production of materials like chrome plating. Animal and limited human studies have shown that the chemical causes tumors to grow in the stomach and intestines.
“The population is drinking a lower concentration, so these are affects that might accumulate over a lifetime,” said Walker. “There are elevated levels of stomach cancer in communities that have bigger exposures.”
Chromium-6 when inhaled is also known to cause asthma, pneumonia, decreased respiratory functioning, and long-term exposure can produce effects on the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal and immune systems.
Lanny Brannock, spokesman for the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, said because chromium-6 is an unregulated contaminant, the state does not monitor for it. “We’re following the guidelines the EPA puts forth and we monitor for total chromium, which is what is required,” Brannock said.
In 2011, the EPA was moving forward to impose restrictions on how much chromium-6 could be present in drinking water. But industry groups like the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, appealed seeking to delay the rules. Now, the EPA is studying the health effects of chromium-6 in drinking water. The agency cannot take action on imposing restrictions until the studies are finished, sometime this year or in 2017.
Owensboro Municipal Utilities is the main supplier of drinkable water in Daviess County. Other water suppliers, including SE Daviess Co. Water District, West Daviess Co. Water District and East Daviess Co. Water Association, Inc., buy their water from OMU.
Public Relations Manager Sonya Dixon said if acceptable levels of chromium-6 were adjusted by the EPA, the company would work to meet the new requirements.
“When you look at it relative to current acceptable levels — 100 parts per billion compared to 1.2 parts per billion — we have to keep it in perspective,” she said.
The Green River District Health Department covers seven counties including Hancock, Henderson and Daviess counties. Environmental Director Clayton Horton said chromium-6 hasn’t been on their radar. He said they take action when agencies like the EPA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issue guidance to public health departments on how to educate public.
“We want to make sure our actions are based on stuff that can be backed up,” Horton said.
If the EPA were to eventually impose a legal limit for chromium-6 specifically, changes to levels in drinking water wouldn’t happen overnight. The agency usually gives states and companies time to develop processes to remove a chemical once it’s deemed unsafe at a certain level.
Clay Kelly, an engineer with Strand Associates, a civil engineering firm that works with local governments on waste water, said it would still be up to Kentucky to implement the standard. He said that could go beyond a mandate that water companies filter out the chemical. He said coal burning power plants and other producers of chromium-6 could be directed to pre-treat their water before it’s discharged back into streams and lakes.
“Instead of those facilities being able to discharge whatever out of their process, they have to have a pre-treatment to remove something particularly difficult before it enters the public wastewater system,” Kelly said. “They [the government] could at least monitor it before it’s diluted with everything else.”
Elevated levels of chromium were also found in Jefferson, Shelby, Spencer, Bullitt and Hardin counties. The counties with the lowest levels were Henry, Washington, Jessamine, Carter and Calloway.
You can search for your county on an interactive map here.