Monica Gainey won't let her three children drink from the water fountain at the Los Angeles County public health clinic in Burbank--not after learning that levels of chromium 6 in the water are up to 40 times the suggested limit.
"The next time they ask me, I'll say no," the 30-year-old Burbank woman said. "I won't drink the water. But how many people have already been drinking it?"
The Burbank clinic had the highest levels of chromium 6 of 110 county clinics, courthouses, fire stations and other facilities tested by county officials, according to a study released Thursday.
The water at the clinic and other county locations, however, is the same water supplied to residences and businesses in those areas by public and private water agencies.
County Supervisor Mike Antonovich proposed the study as a quick means of assessing chromium 6 levels countywide and said the survey points to the need for the state to impose a tougher standard for chromium 6.
"The governor needs to have the state agencies develop the lowest standard for chromium 6 of 0.2 parts per billion, and he should help find funding to clean up Los Angeles water," Antonovich said at a news conference Thursday.
Antonovich said he would ask the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to require testing for chromium 6 at 200 drinking water wells countywide, with a report due to the board in three months. His motion also calls for county officials to report back in six months on chromium 6 levels in tap water at all county facilities.
Asked if people should stop drinking the water, however, Antonovich demurred, saying "That's an individual decision."
Antonovich also called on officials in all of the county's 88 cities to publicly report chromium 6 concentrations in their municipal supplies.
Tougher Standards Proposed by State
The state of California currently has no formal standard for chromium 6, a suspected carcinogen, but instead limits levels of total chromium to 50 parts per billion. All of the water tested by the county fell below that 50 ppb limit.
In 1999, however, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment formally proposed lowering total allowable chromium levels to 2.5 parts per billion.
That proposal--now being studied by the state Department of Health Services--would effectively limit chromium 6 to 0.2 parts per billion, agency officials say.
The county study said the water at all but two of the county facilities tested would have exceeded the proposed new standard of 2.5 ppb for total chromium.
Drinking water at the Burbank clinic had total chromium levels of 11.4 parts per billion and chromium 6 concentrations of 7.84 parts per billion--or about 40 times the suggested level of 0.2 ppb, according to the study by the county's Weights and Measures Department and Environmental Toxicology Laboratory.
Drinking water at 43 other county facilities had chromium 6 levels ranging from 2.57 ppb to 7.69 ppb, the study said.
County libraries in Rosemead, El Monte and Hacienda Heights, and health centers in La Puente and Alhambra, were among the facilities with chromium 6 levels exceeding 4.9 parts per billion.
Although limited to county facilities, the survey showed that chromium 6 appears to be in water supplies countywide.
"Results of this study confirmed the limited data made available by the state Department of Health Services that local chromium and chromium 6 contamination is prevalent in the drinking water supply," the report said.
The county Board of Supervisors called for the study after The Times reported Aug. 20 that the state Health Department could take up to five years to act on the tougher standard for total chromium. Also in response to that story, Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation requiring the Health Department to report to him and the Legislature on the threat of chromium 6 by January 2002.
The Los Angeles City Council has also asked the Department of Water and Power to issue a report this month on chromium 6 levels in city supplies.
Critics have accused the state of dragging its feet in adopting a tougher standard, but state health officials say the scientific evidence suggesting that chromium 6 is a suspected carcinogen is mixed.
Paul Simon, director for Los Angeles County's Health Assessment and Epidemiology said Thursday that people shouldn't be alarmed by the county survey.
"We would not recommend that people stop drinking the water," Simon said. "There are health goals that call for reducing risk to the lowest possible level, but if you look at the actual state regulation, all the results were well below that."
Substance Made Famous by Film
Chromium 6 played a central role in a Hinkley, Calif. toxic case dramatized in the film "Erin Brockovich." Concentrations there, however, were 24 parts per million, 3,000 times higher than levels detected by the county study.
Because most water agencies don't test for chromium 6, the county study provided the first sampling data for chromium 6 countywide.