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Toxic metal in York, Adams Co. water under scrutiny

Written by Lillian Reed and Brett Sholtis/Hanover Evening Sun | Jan 16, 2017 8:03 PM
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John Slagle, an operator at the Hanover water department, prepares a water sample for testing on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. The department tests water samples from six sites in the Hanover area twice each month. Dan Rainville, The Evening Sun

While regulators work to determine chromium-6's health effects, York and Adams County residents could be at risk.

(Hanover) -- A toxic metal made famous in a movie 17 years ago, and which is found in some York and Adams county water systems, is attracting attention again -- this time as government agencies try to decide: How much of it in drinking water is too much?

Chromium-6 can occur naturally in water, and in certain concentrations, it could cause cancer. Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency's limit for all forms of chromium in safe drinking water is 100 parts per billion.

But a group of scientists working for the state of California published a study arguing the limit should be much lower in order to significantly reduce the risk of cancer. Those scientists studied the chemical after a lawsuit spawned by the work of Erin Brockovich, who helped to show that an electric utility had polluted the groundwater with chromium-6, and whose name was the title of a movie about her work.

The EPA is studying whether to reduce the limit, and as part of its work, it recently tested water systems across the country, including in York and Adams counties. Last September, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, took the EPA's data and applied it to the California scientists' recommended limit of .02 parts per billion.

Chromium-6 has been linked to cancer, yet it appears in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans. Sean Heisey, York Daily Record

Tests in five York County water systems -- York Water Company, and systems that serve Hanover, Dover, Dallastown-Yoe and Gettysburg -- showed chromium-6 levels well under the EPA limit, but in some cases, over the scientists' recommendation.

Now, local water systems are waiting on the EPA's decision, because it could mean they'll have to start testing for chromium-6 and treating the water it if it shows up in too-high levels.

Health standards evolve as scientists make new discoveries, said York Water Company CEO Jeff Hines.

"For example, we can now measure into the parts per trillion," Hines said. "That's like a couple of aspirin in Lake Redman. It's such a small amount."

Though Hines is unsure how much actual risk chromium-6 poses, he said the water company will quickly adopt new testing and filtering policies, should new regulations come to pass.

Understanding chromium-6

Chromium-6 is a colorless, tasteless metal compound, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It is found in nature but also used in some welding, spray-painting, chrome plating, pigment-making and other industrial processes.

In tests done between 2013-2015, chromium-6 showed up in samples from five local water systems: York Water Company, Hanover Municipal Waterworks, Dover Township Water System, Dallastown-Yoe Water Authority and Gettysburg Municipal AuthorityThose systems are estimated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to serve more than 230,000 people.

Because those levels fell far below the EPA's legal limit for chromium of 100 parts per billion --  the equivalent of one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool -- the water systems were not required to treat for it.

The EPA set the limit for total chromium, which means all forms of the metal including chromium-6, in 1991 at 100 parts per billion based on what amount would cause skin irritation. It did not take into account the metal compound's carcinogenic properties, according to the EPA's webpage on chromium-6.

Chromium-6 has been associated with a number of health risks, including lung and stomach cancer. It targets the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates the element in U.S. workplaces.

Hinkley, California became the epicenter of a massive lawsuit concerning widespread illnesses from chromium-6 during the 1990s. At some point after the lawsuit, the California Environmental Protection Agency's scientists studied the health effects of chromium-6 in an effort to determine how much of the metal is dangerous.

In 2011, those scientists recommended that a person drink water that contains no more than .02 parts per billion of chromium-6.

By that time, the U.S. EPA was a year into a routine study on whether it should re-evaluate the legal limit specifically for chromium-6 in public drinking water.

As part of the study, the EPA collected chromium-6 levels in select water systems around the country, including systems in York and Adams counties.

That data was used in a 2016 report by Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization.

In its report, EWG compared the EPA's data against the scientists' recommended level, and showed that under that standard, many water systems across the country would have to treat their water for chromium-6. David Andrews, a scientists with Environmental Working Group, said he is alarmed that the EPA has not made a formal change to its regulation. He cited the events in Hinkley and the fact that California lowered its legal limit on chromium-6 to 10 parts per billion.

"That raises concerns about our government's ability to maintain a federal drinking water infrastructure that's ensuring safe water for Americans," Andrews said.

York and Adams water companies wait on EPA

York Water Company's system showed some chromium-6 in samples from two facilities, each of which were tested four times. One site showed chromium-6 levels 5.5 times higher than the California scientists' recommendation.

Also in York County, three water distribution sites in Dover Township registered 12 times California's public health goal. Of 23 locations that were measured in the water system, all but one showed at least some chromium-6.

Dover Township Manager Laurel Oswalt emphasized that Dover's chromium-6 levels are well below the EPA's 100 parts-per-billion limit.

Dallastown-Yoe also showed chromium-6 levels in excess of the .02 parts per billion recommendation.

In Hanover, water officials collected and tested eight samples in 2013. Of those, three contained amounts of chromium-6, the highest of which was more than twice the California scientists' recommendation.

Hanover water supervisors Tim Mayers and Terry Sterner were not worried about the chromium-6 found in Hanover's water because the amounts fell so far below the EPA's legal limit, which they felt indicated it was occurring naturally.

Still, the supervisors said regulation changes are common. Though neither Mayers nor Sterner were sure how they would treat for chromium-6 if a new regulation went into effect, they said treatment for other metals involves adjusting water's pH balance.

In Adams County, Gettysburg Municipal Authority collected and tested 32 samples in 2015. Of those samples, about half contained chromium-6. One site registered more than 11 times what the California scientists said was safe. A representative of the authority couldn't be reached for comment.

Next steps for the EPA

When it comes to changing federal regulations on public drinking water, the EPA has a specific process defined in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Federal regulators must inspect the data collected on chromium-6, which includes the amounts found in water systems in York and Adams counties, as well as studies on the metal's health effects.

The EPA is working on the development of an assessment of chromium-6, which will include an evaluation of those studies on potential health effects from ingesting the metal, said Monica Lee, the EPA's press secretary, in an email Friday.

Read: Hanover/Adams kids test higher for lead

Some of the studies under review include a 2008 long-term animal study by the Department of Health and Human Service's National Toxicology Program. The study "suggest(s) that Chromium-6 may be a human carcinogen if ingested," the EPA website states.

The EPA anticipates that a draft version of the health assessment document will be released in 2017 for public comment prior before it goes on to an external peer review, Lee said in the email.

Once all of the information is reviewed, federal regulators can consider whether to revise the standard for monitoring chromium-6.

Even if the EPA finds that the risk is higher than previously thought, it might not regulate chromium-6 to a level that would satisfy critics of the current standard. Regulations are a compromise between a goal, such as the scientists' .02 limit, and how much it would cost water systems to remove contaminants, the EPA states.

For example, California regulators compromised when they set their limit. There, scientists recommended the public health goal of .02 parts per billion, because it posed a one-in-a-million risk of cancer for people who drink two liters of unfiltered water daily for 70 years. However, the state regulators adopted a legal limit at 10 parts per billion in 2014.

Of the water systems that tested for chromium-6 between 2013 and 2016, only two percent reported levels exceeding California's legal limit, Lee said.

In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the Environmental Working Group report, said John Repetz, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, in an email.

The DEP could opt to set its own threshold for chromium-6, such as the state of California did in 2014.

"DEP will continue to evaluate current information regarding these substances in order to determine how best to protect drinking water in Pennsylvania," Repetz said in the email.

What consumers can do today

Though the EPA is still deliberating whether to adjust its regulations on chromium-6, consumers have several options for monitoring and removing chromium-6 from their drinking water.

Some home water filtration systems, such those manufactured by Aquasana and ZeroWater, advertise capabilities for removing some amounts of chromium-6 from water.

The Department of Environmental Protection also has an accreditation program for Pennsylvania labs that conduct water testing. One such accredited facility, Laboratory, Analytical & Biological Services, Inc. is based in East Berlin Borough in Adams County.

While the East Berlin facility does not conduct chromium-6 testing, staff members do accept water samples that they can send to other labs in Pennsylvania for testing.

Ranges of Chromium-6 concentrations in York-Adams water

California scientists set a public health goal that concentrations of chromium-6 should not exceed .02 parts per billion in public drinking water. The EPA's limit on chromium-6 is 100 parts per billion. Here is list of the range of chromium-6 concentrations found in York and Adams counties' water systems.

Dallastown-Yoe Water Authority -- .032 to .075 parts per billion

Dover Township Water System -- 0 to .24 parts per billion

Gettysburg Municipal Authority -- 0 to .23 parts per billion

Hanover Municipal Waterworks -- 0 to .048 parts per billion

York Water Company -- .069 to .11 parts per billion

 

This article is part of a partnership between WITF and the Hanover Evening Sun.

 

Published in Adams County, News

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