03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Legacy of Erin Brockovich: Chromium Contamination in Drinking Water

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Almost ten years after Julia Roberts played the title role in the movie, the saga about chromium contamination in drinking water continues. The current sequel opens in California on Monday, when the Cal/EPA Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) holds a public workshop to get input on their draft health goal for hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

Although Julia Roberts won't be in this sequel, don't be surprised if the real Erin Brockovich appears. In fact, she may face off against some of her old adversaries, since many polluters will no doubt be present to argue against this public health measure.

You see, it turns out that the town of Hinkley, California - featured in the movie - was not unique. There are millions of people drinking water contaminated with the cancer-causing form of chromium known as "hex chrome." Nearly 40 percent of the drinking water sources tested in California have contamination above safe levels. Although this contaminant sometimes occurs naturally, there are many sources of industrial contamination - steel production and metal working, electroplating, tanneries, cooling towers, paint/pigment manufacturing, glassmaking, wood preservatives, and even cement manufacturing.

In the years since the movie, there have been some interesting developments on the scientific front -- much of what Erin Brockovich and the people of Hinkley, California claimed about hex chrome has been shown to be true.

Scientists have known for nearly a century that hex chrome is toxic and causes cancer when inhaled. Now we have clear evidence that it also causes cancer when it is ingested - maybe not surprising, but somehow it took this long to have the proof. In addition to causing cancer, hex chrome is already known to cause reproductive toxicity and to interfere with development of the fetus. In addition to all of the above, it is also quite toxic to the liver and kidneys.

California has a law, passed in 2001, requiring that the State finalize an enforceable drinking water standard for hex chrome by 2004. Unfortunately the legislative deadline came and went, and the machinery of state regulation has ground along slowly. Check out their regulatory timeline here. Most recently, the process was gummed up when the Governor's office proposed to completely eliminate the Office responsible for setting the safe level. Fortunately, due to public outcry, that proposal was stopped.

Now there's no further excuse for delay. The safe level (known as a Public Health Goal) needs to be finalized as soon as possible so that an enforceable standard can be set to protect public health. Everyone (even non-Californians) can help by sending a message to Cal/EPA before November 2nd asking them to finalize the Public Health Goal. If you're local, come join Erin and me at the meeting in Oakland!

This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.