A cancer-causing chemical called chromium-6 can be found in the tap water of nearly 200 million Americans — including those who live in Amherst.
But does that mean you’re in danger?
Chromium-6 is a metallic element found naturally in rocks, soil, plants, and animals. You might remember it from the 2000 Julia Roberts biopic “Erin Brockovich” about a woman who fights a California power company accused of leaking the chemical into the water supply in the form of industrial waste.
An average 0.083 parts per billion were found in Amherst’s drinking water in testing throughout 2013, according to nationwide results released Sept. 20 by the Environmental Working Group.
Let’s put that in perspective.
“A part per billion is about a drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool,” the nonprofit environmental health group says.
That puts the amount of chromium-6 in Amherst’s water at less than a hundredth of a drop in that same pool — and one ten-thousandth of the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard.
The level here is so low it doesn’t have to be reported, said Amherst utilities superintendent Ron Merthe.
He provided the News-Times with a copy of the 2015 year-end water quality testing report for the city’s water supply. It detected acceptable traces of arsenic, barium, fluoride, nitrates, and even volatile organic substances found in nature.
Amherst’s single quality violation wasn’t chromium-6.
It was turbidity — slight haziness of the water due to tiny particles usual invisible to the naked eye. In our case, it’s caused by soil runoff.
EWG contends that even tiny amounts of chromium-6 can be dangerous.
Its recent report said some scientists believe the chemical “causes cancer when ingested at even extraordinarily low levels.” EWG supports reducing drinking water levels to 0.02 parts per billion.
That could be extraordinarily difficult for many cities, especially larger ones with aging water lines.
Phoenix, Ariz., is a prime example. The city, which serves 1.5 million people, averaged 7.85 parts per billion chromium-6 with detective in 79 of 80 samples taken, EWG reported.
Houston, St. Louis, and Los Angeles all had high readings. Amherst’s levels were roughly the same as those found in San Diego, Miami-Dade, and San Juan (Puerto Rico).
Cleveland’s water registered 0.102 parts per billion in 20 of 20 tests.
That’s interesting because Northeast Ohio’s drinking water comes from one source — Lake Erie — and differs in quality largely by how cities treat it and what contaminants can be found in their distribution lines.
Even Amherst doesn’t have its own supply, buying most of its water from Elyria and a small portion from the city of Lorain.
Built in the 1920s, Elyria’s system treats more than four billion gallons of drinking water each year. In a standards report published earlier this year, mayor Holly Brinda said Elyria’s drinking water meets the strictest criteria of the Ohio EPA and all other testing authorities.
In 2014, the neighboring city conducted testing for 83 contaminants, including bacteria, inorganic compounds, synthetic materials, pesticides, lead, algae, and more. It met all the requirements of the National Drinking Water Act.
An interactive map at www.ewg.org shows readings from samples taken nationwide between 2013 and 2015, although not consistently throughout that period. (For example, Amherst’s all came from the same year and are now three years old.)
“Ohio EPA takes drinking water safety very seriously. If U.S. EPA sets a national standard for chromium-6, Ohio will move quickly to adopt that standard to ensure that Ohioans are protected,” said Heidi Griesmer, spokesperson for Ohio EPA in Columbus.
Griesmer said people should not be concerned to drink their water because of the chromium-6 levels that have been detected in the water.
“The vast majority of our water systems have chromium-6 levels of less than one part per billion, and because they are so low, the general indication would be that the source may be naturally occurring from things in the soil,” said Griesmer.
She said the EWG report analyzed Ohio EPA data that was sent to the U.S. EPA, which is working on a scientific review to determine whether Ohio should establish maximum contaminant levels for chromium-6.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter. Civitas Media reporter Ashley Bunton also contributed to this article.