Take chromium, for example. In trace amounts, this metallic element is an essential part of the human diet. It helps regulate blood sugar, raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels in the blood, may help prevent heart disease, and can even combat depression.
Chromium in its beneficial form (trivalent chromium, or chromium-3) occurs naturally in the environment. You can get it by eating broccoli, grape juice, many meats, brewer’s yeast, onions and tomatoes, or in supplement form at your local health food store.
But there is another kind of chromium whose effect on the human body can be devastating. Hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, is classified as a toxic heavy metal. It is far more readily absorbed than chromium 3 and thus far more likely to reach toxic levels in the body. Chromium-6 has been linked to skin irritation; ulcers; respiratory problems; sperm damage; kidney damage; and cancer of the stomach, intestinal tract and lungs.
Historically, attention to chromium-6 toxicity has focused mainly on exposure suffered by workers in facilities that use chromium for industrial purposes. Of these cases, the majority involve inhalation of the chemical. However, hexavalent chromium can also contaminate water supplies. And a report released Sept. 20 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reveals that water-borne chromium contamination is far more common than anyone might have guessed.
How does chromium end up in tap water?
Trace amounts of hexavalent chromium occur naturally in the environment in many areas. However, most incidents of high chromium levels in water can be traced to industrial sources.
The 2000 film Erin Brockovich, in which Julia Roberts played an Academy Award-winning starring role, told the true story of an environmental advocate who successfully sued the Pacific Gas and Electric Company for contaminating her community’s groundwater with chromium. Other industries that use chromium include leather tanning, stainless steel manufacturing, electroplating, textile production, and other manufacturing. The chemical commonly leaves factories as airborne particulate and eventually ends up in surface and ground water.
How prevalent is chromium contamination in North American water supplies?
EWG reports that counties in every state in the continental U.S. have water supplies in which chromium levels exceed the .02 parts per billion that California scientists consider to be an acceptable limit for public health. In fact, over 3 out of 4 water samples in a nationwide EPA survey of over 60,000 samples were found to contain chromium levels at least this high. This is thought to affect over 218 million Americans.
Studies have also revealed high levels of chromium-6 in Canadian water supplies. Data compiled by Carex Canada suggests that elevated chromium-6 levels in drinking water may be contributing to an increase in cancer in the Canadian population.
Who is most at risk for chromium toxicity?
In the case of oral ingestion, stomach acid plays an important role in breaking chromium-6 down into chromium-3 in the process of detoxification. Therefore antacid users, people with ulcers, and people with conditions associated with low stomach acidity such as pernicious anemia, pancreatic tumors and certain autoimmune diseases are more vulnerable to chromium toxicity.
No studies have been done regarding chromium toxicity in children. However, children, babies and fetuses are more sensitive to carcinogens in general. Animal studies have shown adverse effects in developing fetuses related to high chromium exposure in utero, including miscarriage, low birth weight, and abnormalities in skeletal and reproductive system development.
How can I find out if I have chromium-6 in my water?
If you live in the continental U.S. you can find out if elevated chromium levels are present in tap water in your area by visiting EWG’s interactive map. If you have a private well, it is a good idea to have your water tested regularly by an independent lab. Since some indoor plumbing fixtures have been found to leach hexavalent chromium into drinking water, it is best to have your water tested at the tap.
Canadian water utilities are required to inform their customers immediately if regular water monitoring indicates that chromium levels have exceeded .05 mg/L (about 50 parts per billion). Keep in mind that this amount refers to total chromium, not just chromium-6. However, since this is quite a lot more than many scientists consider acceptable, concerned Canadians may also wish to have their water tested.
What can I do to protect my family?
The simplest way to deal with high levels of chromium in your drinking water is to install a filter. “Many people opt for a whole house filtration system to reduce heavy metals like lead and mercury, chlorine, pharmaceuticals, and organic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and VOC’s from their tap water,” says Kate Kyle, Marketing Director at Aquasana. For additional protection, she also recommends installing an NSF-certified reverse osmosis filter at the kitchen sink to remove any substances that may make it past the initial filter, such as fluoride, chromium-6, mercury, arsenic, Radium, and Barium.
In reverse osmosis, water gets pushed through a semipermeable membrane which filters out particles of heavy metals and other contaminants. The result is pure, safe drinking water. However, the system will also filter out beneficial minerals. Since drinking water is an important source of minerals for many people, you might want to consider remineralizing your drinking water after it has gone through the reverse osmosis process.
You can do this by adding mineral tablets or small amounts of natural mineralizers such as Celtic or Himalayan salt or Pascalite clay to your water. Or, purchase a reverse osmosis filter designed to remineralize your water automatically.
What if I can’t afford a reverse osmosis filter?
A reverse osmosis water filtration system will run you several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on size and model. While this can be a cost-effective option in the long run (especially considering the health benefits for your family), the upfront cost may be prohibitive to some families.
Many people turn to bottled water as a temporary solution. However, this approach should be used with caution. Bottled water companies are required to meet the same standards as public water utilities, but they’re not required to publicly announce their findings. Some do, but the issue of trust rears its ugly head for those that don’t. A Natural Resources Defense Council study found that 22% of bottled water brands tested contained chemical contaminants exceeding levels allowed by the state. Bottled water also is typically not tested nearly as often for biological contaminants, as evidenced by the 2015 recall of 14 brands of bottled water for E. coli contamination. Finally, bottled water brings with it a heavy environmental toll, and in the long run it is much more expensive per glass.
A better solution for those who need to watch their budget, or for renters who do not wish to install a permanent filter, is a countertop filter or a pitcher filter. These standalone units are typically less expensive than reverse osmosis and are completely portable. However, you’ll want to do your homework to find ones that will remove chromium-6. Three companies have been found to do the job include Aquasana, Big Berkey, and ZeroWater, which claims to have the only pour-through pitcher filter on the market certified to remove chromium-3, chromium-6, and lead.
Regardless of which water filtration system you choose, be sure to ask the salesperson for a performance data sheet before investing. This document should be available from the manufacturer and will identify any third-party testing of the unit along with a list of contaminants it was found to remove to an acceptable standard.
Make this a wake-up call about water safety
Environmental toxins are a fact of life in this modern world of ours. Chromium is just one more that many of us have probably been exposed to for decades. Yet another chemical that, while benign or even beneficial in the amounts nature intended, has been released into the environment in levels far exceeding what is good for human health.
While learning that we have a specific chemical in our water can be scary, why not look at the positive implications? Every wake up call (and that’s what this is, after all) is an opportunity. In addition to taking steps to protect your family, why not think further about what you can do to protect all families and all children, born and yet unborn? If Erin Brockovich, an ordinary citizen with no background in public health, could stand up and fight for environmental justice in her community, why not us?
It’s not necessary to wage extensive legal battles or step too far out of our comfort zone in order to stand up for our right to clean water clean air, and other basic necessities (although if you feel called to do so, more power to you!) The biggest thing is to facilitate a change in attitude.
Simply shrugging our shoulders about the inevitability of it all is so last century. The world is starting to wake up to the fact that we’ve got the power to make change happen.
Think about what you can do – whether it’s signing a petition, researching an item’s (or a company’s) environmental impact before making a purchase, or foregoing the purchase altogether – to take steps towards positive change both for your family and the greater society.
Go ahead and take the actions that you feel are right. And most importantly, talk about it. Concern is contagious. Tell your kids why you do what you do. Talk to their teachers, your family, your friends. Shout it out on social media. Contact your congressman. And never ever feel like you have to hide your passion for people and planet. If all of us decide together we’ve had enough, perhaps we can stop the next chemical scare from ever happening.
Latest posts by Anne Michelsen (see all)
- Chromium-6 in Tap Water: What You Can Do About the ‘Erin Brockovich’ Chemical - October 28, 2016
- Fluoride on the Mind: Drinking Water and Your Child’s IQ - January 26, 2016
- A Hard Look at Water Softeners: Could your water softener be harming the planet? - January 5, 2016