Two decades after the largest class action injury lawsuit of its kind, the water contamination that lead to the judgement is still present in most tap water.
More than two-thirds of Americans are exposed to chromium-6, a carcinogenic chemical, in their tap water, according to a new report from the non-profit Environmental Working Group. It is the same chemical responsible for poisoning the citizens of Hinkley, Calif., which lead to a payout of $333 million in damages, in 1996, to more than 600 residents. The case was depicted in the movie Erin Brockovich. The new report suggests an estimated 218 million people in the United States -- including residents of California, where the contamination was uncovered -- are being exposed to the carcinogenic chemicals through their tap water.
Chromium is an odorless and tasteless metallic element. The two most common forms of chromium found in natural waters are trivalent chromium (chromium-3) and hexavalent chromium (chromium-6). Both can be found naturally in rocks, plants, soil and volcanic dust and animals. However chromium-6 also can be produced by industrial processes and released into the environment by leakage, poor storage or inadequate industrial waste disposal practices, as was the case in Hinkley that led to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) being sued for contaminating ground water.
Hinkley, a town in the Mojave Desert, had the highest levels of chromium-6 ever reported in U.S. groundwater at the time PG&E was exposed. Chromium-6 had been used by the company to to inhibit rust in cooling towers. It seeped into the groundwater after PG&E dumped it into unlined holding ponds in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time Brockovich, a law clerk, investigated, Hinkley was found to have the highest rates of cancer and other diseases in the U.S. At that time, scientists were already aware that inhaling chromium-6 could lead to lung cancer. After the Hinkley case, new research revealed that drinking contaminated water caused cancer, too.
After the PG&E case, lawmakers in California set a goal for drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion (ppb) of chromium-6 -- the equivalent of one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. California's public health goal exceeds the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency of 0.1 milligrams per liter, or 100 ppb, for any type of chromium, including chromium-6.
Yet, even after the Hinkley case, a study of 31 cities in a 2013 report showed the municipalities exceeding California's standard. Washington D.C. and Bethesda, Md., were revealed to have 0.19 ppb of chromium-6 while Villanova, Pa., had 0.18 ppb and Pittsburg, Pa. had 0.88 ppb. Even Los Angeles exceeded its own state's health goal with a level of 0.20 ppb. Riverside, Calif., was even higher, with 1.69 ppb. The highest level was recorded in Norman, Okla., with 12.90 ppb.
Even more concerning than water contaminated with chromium-6, however is contamination by a combination of chemicals.
As one of the authors of the recently released Environmental Working Group report told CNN: “Americans are exposed to dozens if not hundreds of other cancer-causing chemicals every day in their drinking water, their consumer products and their foods. And what the best science of the last decade tells us is that these chemicals acting in combination with each other can be more dangerous than exposure to a single chemical.”
If you have been harmed as a result of environmental contamination or if a loved one has died, you may be entitled to compensation. Call the offices of trial attorneys Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian at 800-529-6162 or contact them online. The firm handles cases in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.