Responding to concerns that high levels of chromium--and its toxic byproduct chromium 6--pose a serious threat to public health, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called on the federal government Thursday to toughen national standards for the chemical in drinking water.
In a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner, Boxer said federal officials should conduct their own review of safe levels for chromium and chromium 6--just as the state of California is doing.
"I was disturbed to discover that the federal standard for chromium is far less stringent than state regulations on this dangerous carcinogen," Boxer wrote. "I urge the EPA to lead an effort to reevaluate the dangers of chromium 6 and include in its investigation an analysis of the risks of ingested chromium 6 through food and water."
Water regulators say chromium 6 pollution is a byproduct of years of manufacturing in the east San Fernando Valley by Lockheed Martin Corp. and other companies. Among other functions, chromium 6 was used in paint pigments and the chrome-plating process.
Los Angeles and other cities that pump water from the aquifer have been forced to dilute supplies or, in some cases, close wells because of chromium 6 contamination.
The California chromium standard is 50 parts per billion for total chromium, compared wth the federal EPA standard of 100 parts per billion.
There is no standard for the byproduct chromium 6, although state officials say a proposed new standard of 2.5 parts per billion for total chromium is designed to reduce chromium 6 levels to 0.2 ppb.
Boxer spokesman Matthew Kagan said the senator's action was prompted by numerous letters and phone calls from constituents in Southern California who expressed their concern over possible chromium 6 contamination in drinking water supplies.
EPA spokeswoman Robin Woods said agency officials had not yet seen the letter, which was also sent to President-elect Bush's designated EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman. Woods said the agency would comment as quickly as possible after a review of the document.
Chromium 6 is considered carcinogenic when inhaled through particles or vapor, but scientists differ over the threat it poses when consumed in water.
Two years ago, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment issued a public health goal that called for cutting levels of chromium in California drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 2.5 parts per billion.
When The Times reported Aug. 20 that the state Department of Health Services had not acted on the recommendation and that implementation could take five more years, state and local lawmakers demanded faster action.
In October, the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis enacted SB 2127, requiring the state health department to determine chromium 6 levels in drinking water supplied by San Fernando Valley aquifers, assess the risk to the public and report its findings to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2002.
More recently, some state lawmakers--including state Sens. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) and Jack Scott (D-Altadena) said they would press for an "action level" on total chromium that would require public notice when the chemical exceeds 2.5 parts per billion in drinking water.
Health department spokeswoman Leah Brooks said the agency is considering setting that action level. In addition, she said, on Jan. 3 her agency ordered local water agencies in California to begin monitoring for chromium 6.