State to Develop Health Goal, Seeks Scientific Review of Chromium 6 in Drinking Water

SACRAMENTO - The Health and Human Services Agency's Department of Health Services (DHS) and the California Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) today announced key actions regarding the further study and regulation of chromium 6 in drinking water.

In a letter dated March 27, 2001, DHS is asking OEHHA to establish a specific Public Health Goal (PHG) for chromium 6, also known as hexavalent chromium. The PHG would formally identify a level of chromium 6 in drinking water that does not pose a significant human health risk. Establishment of a PHG would be the first step toward the development by DHS of a state drinking water standard specifically for chromium 6. This would be the first chromium 6 drinking-water standard in the nation.

At the same time, the California Environmental Protection Agency, on behalf of OEHHA, has asked the University of California (UC) to establish a blue-ribbon panel of expert scientists from throughout the United States to review scientific questions concerning the potential of chromium 6 to cause cancer when it is ingested. The UC panel's review will provide recommendations to assist OEHHA in the development of a chromium 6 PHG. The UC panel will also provide important information to both OEHHA and DHS for a statutorily required assessment of health risks posed by chromium 6 in drinking water in the San Fernando Valley that will be conducted this year.

"California is looking at the potential health impacts of chromium 6 in drinking water in a greater level of detail than anywhere else in the United States," said OEHHA Director Joan E. Denton, Ph.D. "Chromium 6 is known to cause cancer when it is inhaled. This blue-ribbon panel of national experts on chromium will ensure that we put the best science to work in assessing the health risks that chromium 6 in drinking water may pose."

State Health Director Diana M. Bonta, R.N., Dr. P.H., said, "Public concern and scientific debate over chromium 6 will not be resolved without additional information on this contaminant. A Public Health Goal specifically for chromium 6 will be an important tool in determining a safe standard for California drinking water."

OEHHA will ask the UC panel to provide written recommendations on several questions relating to the potential of ingested chromium 6 to cause cancer, and approaches for determining levels of chromium 6 in drinking water that do not pose a significant health risk. UC will select up to 13 scientists to serve on the panel. OEHHA is asking that the chair of the panel hold one public workshop and then present its recommendations this summer.

OEHHA also expects to use the UC panel's recommendations as guidance in developing a PHG for chromium 6. Development of a chromium 6 specific PHG will be a rigorous process involving an extensive review and evaluation of the available scientific literature on chromium 6. A draft PHG, once developed, will be subject to a scientific peer review and a public comment period. OEHHA expects to publish a final chromium 6 PHG by Spring 2003.

The panel's recommendations will help DHS and OEHHA in conducting their assessment of potential risks posed by chromium 6 in the drinking water supplied by the public water systems serving the San Fernando Valley. Senate Bill 2127, approved by the Legislature and signed into law last year, requires the assessment to be completed by the end of 2001.

In February 1999, OEHHA published a PHG of 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) for "total" chromium, of which chromium 6 is a component. However, chromium 6 is the most toxic form of chromium and is the primary health concern when chromium is present in drinking water. Limited monitoring data collected by DHS during the past two years has led health officials to suspect that chromium 6 comprises a larger percentage of total chromium typically found in water than was believed when OEHHA published the PHG for total chromium. More recently, DHS promulgated emergency regulations requiring California water utilities monitor their drinking water specifically for chromium 6 and report their findings to DHS.

Currently, California drinking water must meet a limit of 50 ppb of total chromium, which is twice as stringent as the federal standard of 100 ppb that is enforced in every other state. California law requires DHS to set drinking water standards based in part on the PHGs published by OEHHA. It is important to note that PHGs are not a "boundary line" between "safe" and "dangerous" levels of contaminants in drinking water. PHGs represent desirable goals for healthful drinking water that may or may not be achievable. In developing drinking water standards, state law requires DHS to consider economic and technical feasibility as well as the PHG in setting these standards. After the chromium 6 PHG is established by OEHHA, DHS will promulgate a primary drinking water standard (maximum contaminant level, or MCL) for chromium 6.

News Release
California Department of Health Services
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

DATE: March 27, 2001
(916) 445-6903

Ken August (DHS)
(916) 657-3064