Chrome and Carcinogens in Your Tap Water by Michael Braunstein

Your relationship with Steven Soderbergh is at least as personal as mine. Soderbergh is the Oscar-winning director of such fabled films as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Erin Brockovich, Oceans Eleven and Traffic. In 2001 he became the first film director since 1938 to be nominated for Best Director Oscar for two movies in the same year: Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He is the only director ever to be double-nominated for Oscar, Golden Globes and Directors Guild awards all in the same year. (He won for Brockovich.) I knew him when: Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich also earned Julia Roberts an Oscar. The film was about a small town in California that was polluted by a cancer-causing chemical called hexavalent chromium or chromium-6. But years before his breakthrough film, Soderbergh and I sat side-by-side working on a Barry Manilow concert film for release on Showtime back in the mid-’80s. Soderbergh was film editor, cutting the film to my music mix. He was looking for a gig and trying to break into the Hollywood scene. He later sent me a demo video of a band he was working with back home in Louisiana called The Backbeats. It’s in the water: Your connection with Soderbergh goes much deeper than that because according to the Environmental Working Group, the subject chemical of his hit film Erin Brockovich, hexavalent chromium, enters your body every time you chug a glass of Omaha tap water. In a report just released this past week, the EWG found excessive amounts of chromium-6 in 31 of 35 cities tested. Omaha ranks number seven on the list. Chromium is a nasty and pervasive pollutant. There are many versions of the metal. Some are unknown in nature and are produced by industrial processes. Such is the case with chromium-6, a by-product of steel production and pulp mills. The EWG tested specifically for chromium-6 and found that Omaha’s tap water has a level of 1.07 parts per billion. The state of California proposed safety limit is .06 ppb. Our water is nearly 18 times above that safety level. Things could be worse. Number one on the list of chromium-6-polluted cities is Norman, Okla. with nearly 13 ppb. Chrome links: So what’s so bad about chromium-6 found in our tap water? Well, according to multiple sources, including the EPA and EWG, we’re talking about a known carcinogen with links to various cancers. In the real-life story of Erin Brockovich, Hinkley, Calif., a town with a chromium-6 polluted water supply, sued Pacific Gas & Electric. Residents blamed the pollutant for numerous cases of cancer, miscarriages and immune system problems. Lab tests found that even miniscule amounts can cause cancerous tumors. Municipal water systems are charged with an almost impossible task if we expect them to remove every bad chemical, toxin, pollutant and pathogen from the water flowing to our taps. Utility companies do an incredible job as it is. But it’s plain impossible to keep up with the level of pollution we humans are capable of. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, various sources estimate that there are over 100,000 different chemicals in everyday use. The European Union has a register of 140,000. Only the tiniest percentage is ever tested for safety. Trying to keep all of these chemicals out of our water supply is not really what utilities systems are built for. While John Q. Public may think the water coming from the tap is pure because someone is watching out for him, the fact is that it is not. With the thousands of chemical pollutants that we just shrug and chug, when is enough, enough? Water utility companies do an amazing job; our local version included. It’s just that they can’t do it all. They do their best to meet government standards and usually do but government standards don’t mandate removing all the chemicals. That’s why groups like EWG find everything from Prozac to chromium-6 in our water supplies. Utility companies aren’t enough. Don’t hit the bottle: Of course the sale of bottled water has soared over the past decade. It’s not a good idea to source water that way. Pollution breeds pollution, in this case. Billions of used plastic bottles hit landfills each year. In addition, most bottled water is just municipal water run through a “taste-good” filter that doesn’t remove much more than what you’ll find at the tap. The responsibility for removing all of the bad stuff in municipal water should not fall on the shoulders of the utility company. The system is incapable. In the end, if the means to purify water to your home is cost-effective and available, doing so becomes a viable option. A simple solution to impure water engages one of the most effective filtering methods known: reverse osmosis. Using a series of filters, RO can remove chromium-6, pharmaceutical drugs and pollutants that municipal water systems cannot handle. It can also remove harmful chlorine or chloramine that utilities add to the water. “RO is very effective in removing ions like chromium-6,” said Philip Rhodes, owner of Futuramic Water Systems in Omaha. “We’ve got complete statistics on everything RO systems can do.” Rhodes’ family-owned company provides water purification systems to homes and businesses in the Midwest. They have a low-cost RO system that can be installed under the sink for less than $19/month. Most of us spend that much on bottled water. Along with the findings of chromium-6 in municipal water supplies the media is reporting that a survey found cancer rates in Hinkley are no greater than other cities. That won’t mean Steven Soderbergh will have to return his Oscar and it doesn’t prove the pollutant is safe. Chromium-6 may not be the worst thing that could be in our tap water, but along with the hundreds of other chemicals that might be, I’d prefer not to drink it. Be well.

posted at 01:36 pm
on Thursday, December 30th, 2010

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