OAKLAND — The scientific back end to a long-awaited public health standard limiting poison levels in California drinking water neared its final step Monday at a hearing that drew clean water activists such as Erin Brockovich to the Elihu Harris State Building.
The poison in question is hexavalent chromium, also called hex chrome or chromium six, given notoriety in the film bearing Brockovich's name. Hex chrome is a carcinogen long known to cause cancer through inhalation but only recently recognized by the federal government as dangerous to drink. Before there was controversy over whether stomach acids converted the chemical into a related, nonpoisonous nutrient, researcher Gina Solomon said.
Before the state can set standards about how much hex chrome is allowed in drinking water, researchers need to determine what level is dangerous: a figure researchers at the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment said Monday they have reached.
They came up with: 0.06 parts per billion.
More than that, spokesman Sam Delson said, and cancer becomes a risk starting at the rate of one additional cancer case per million people exposed and rising quickly from there.
More than 30 million Californians in 500 communities are at risk of being exposed to far higher rates, Brockovich said.
"Wow, it's been 18 years since I started working to fight this poison, and we're finally looking at trying to set standards," Brockovich said. "It's high time we had stricter standards, better regulation and definitely more enforcement."
The most at-risk areas in the state are near Los Angeles and along the Central Valley, Solomon said. The Bay Area is generally safer, though hex chrome has been found in dangerous levels further down the Highway 101 corridor nearer San Jose, she said.
Scott Davis, a Merced County resident whose wife died after undergoing chemotherapy and drinking water in an area he said is now known for hex chrome contamination, said he just wants the dangers of the chemical to be known.
"She didn't even know she was drinking it," he said. "If you have any immune system problem, like AIDS or the impacts of cancer chemotherapy, the stuff just destroys you."
The deadline for public comment about the figure the state office proposed is Nov. 2. After that, researchers will incorporate whatever public feedback they receive and republish their report and findings, which could include a peer review performed by the University of California, OEHHA Deputy Director for Scientific Affairs George Alexeeff said.
"We're hoping to have it completely done by the end of spring," Alexeeff said. "After that, the goal goes to the California Department of Public Health, where they will determine the feasibility of the number weighed against expense and so forth."
The state office has posted its research and findings at http://www.oehha.ca.gov/water/phg — comments will be accepted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or can be mailed to the California Environmental Protection Agency at 1515 Clay St., 16th floor in Oakland.