The Sunshine State is making headlines again and not for a positive reason. Contaminated drinking water, a public health and safety issue thrust into the spotlight by the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is alarming thousands of Tampa Bay residents. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published a new study that reveals Tampa Bay’s drinking water exceeds the maximum chromium levels the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment deem safe. As news of this cancer-causing toxin in Tampa’s water spreads, citizens wonder how at risk they are.
In 1993, a single mother named Erin Brockovich almost single-handedly put an end to local water contamination by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California. Her work shed light on the toxins infiltrating local drinking water supplies, which led to California’s current public health goals concerning water. The contaminant in question was chromium-6, a cancer-causing toxin linked with liver damage, reproductive problems, lung cancer, and developmental harm – the same contaminant now discovered in Tampa Bay’s water.
Chromium, a metallic element, is odorless and tasteless. Two forms of chromium occur naturally in water: chromium-3 and chromium-6. Chromium-3 is important for human dietary health and is in many fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains. Chromium-6 stems from natural chromium deposit erosion or industrial processes and is a carcinogen. Factories with poor storage, leaking containers, or inefficient industrial waste removal practices can leak industrially-produced chromium-6 into the environment – and eventually into our groundwater.
Experts have linked chromium-6 with liver and kidney damage, pulmonary congestion, asthma, respiratory irritation, and respiratory cancer. Even minor exposures to chromium-6 can cause adverse health problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the acceptable federal level of chromium-6 in drinking water at 100 parts per billion (ppb), or 0.1 milligrams per liter. California’s acceptable level, however, is only 0.02 ppb. California set this limit in 2011 after a study showed that even small levels of chromium-6 pose a risk over a lifetime of consumption.
The EWG analyzed data from nationwide water tests to assess the state of contaminates in drinking water. The tests showed that chromium-6 contaminates the water supply for more than 200 million Americans across all 50 states. In Florida, levels of chromium-6 did not exceed the federal limits for drinking water contamination – meaning there will likely be no federal regulation of this issue. They did, however, exceed California’s acceptable levels.
Which Florida Towns Are Most at Risk?
According to the EWG, 20 different areas in Florida showed levels that exceed 0.02 ppb for the contaminate chromium. These regions include the City of Sarasota, the University of South Florida, the City of Tampa Water Department, and the City of St. Petersburg, to name a few. Read the full list of cities at risk of contaminated water here. Pasco County showed the highest level of chromium-6 at 0.491 ppb, with the other four trailing behind:
- Hillsborough County: 0.0867 ppb
- Pinellas County: 0.0860 ppb
- Manatee County: 0.0418 ppb
- Sarasota County: 0.0316 ppb
The study suggests that negligent manufacturing waste practices caused the chromium-6 contamination. Coal-burning power plants often dump ash containing chromium-6 into unlined pits, threatening hundreds of thousands of water supplies. Studies show that common methods to treat drinking water supplies may actually increase levels of chromium-6.
Chromium-6 is a known carcinogen that causes cancer even in small amounts. Experts say that those at greatest risk of harm from this toxin are infants, children, those who take antacids, and those with poorly functioning livers. Until the water industry takes action to clean up Florida’s water supply, citizens should consider drinking filtered bottled water instead. The EPA and FL state regulators must take an initiative to pay their share of the cleanup costs and repair our water systems.