with Beth-Ann Kozlovich
HONOLULU—It’s a big question for some, a non issue for others: Do you drink the water? At two-parts-per-billion, Honolulu’s water has the second highest level of a cancer causing chemical in samples tested from 35 cities and towns across America.
The findings of the report released last month by the Environmental Working Group caused concern nationwide. Within days of the report’s release, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson, pledged action to determine the extent of contamination by hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, in the nation’s drinking water.
The EPA is expected to release guidelines for testing within the coming weeks and a full assessment within the year. It is likely the EPA will set a legal standard for chromium 6. Currently there is only a limit for total chromium.
Dr. Olga Naidenko, the Environmental Working Group’s senior scientist, says it’s no accident that they chose certain areas to test.
“We did have some hints where to look coming from our 2009 tap water atlas,” Naidenko says. “The cities that we chose were a mix of larger cities and also smaller cities which have had a problem with higher total chromium.”
Although Naidenko declined to pinpoint the exact locations where samples were taken, including the one—and only one—from Honolulu, Stuart Yamada, Environmental Management Division Chief for the State Department of Health (DOH) and formerly the head of the Safe Drinking Water Branch, only corroborates a rumor.
“We’ve heard second and third hand that the sample came from the Wilhelmina Rise neighborhood,” Yamada says.
According to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply’s Erwin Kawata, the agency “took it [the Environmental Working Group’s report] as concerning and we knew we needed to find out for ourselves.” Kawata is the the program administrator overseeing water quality for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply (BWS) and says testing around Oahu began last week. “We have taken samples at major pumping stations in metro Honolulu, on the Windward side, and Leeward side and we took samples from central Oahu and the North Shore.”
Life of the Land executive director Henry Curtis approves of the latest action. “We personally have great faith in them [BWS],” Curtis says. “They’re a good agency and competent at what they’re doing, but there also has been the awareness that chromium is out there.”
Naidenko says the focus on combating water source pollution in general is important and the public health concern over the elevated chromium 6 is reason to pay attention now. The Environmental Working Group sees a link between the level of chromium 6 and the incidence of stomach cancer, a conclusion drawn from Chinese and American toxicology studies.
“Chromium has been known to be an inhalation carcinogen, so a danger for people in occupational settings, for a long time,” Naidenko says. “And from animal studies and the human study out of China, we now know that swallowing chromium 6 in water increases the amount of stomach tumors and possibly tumors in other gastrointestinal sites.”
Curtis is more circumspect. “There are so many things that affect cancer in the environment,” he says, “and to isolate one thing, chromium 6, and say that causes an elevation or not—that’s way too difficult.”
Yamada agrees that directly linking the two is difficult, but also says recent findings of a decrease in stomach cancer incidence in Hawaii is an intriguing anecdotal fact. At last week’s meeting of the Hawaii Senate committees on Health and on Energy and Environment, the DOH presented data from its tumor registry showing the rate of stomach cancer in Hawaii has been declining.
So where is Honolulu’s chromium 6 coming from? The Environmental Working Group points to steel, pulp mill, and other industrial runoff. But Naidenko says those are not the only sources.
“In addition to those polluting industries, [there is] leeching of chromium from the natural mineral deposits,” Naidenko says. “The one point of interest to mention is that very often leeching would be increased because of increasing development, erosion, and runoff into water supplies. And sometimes those naturally occurring, but nevertheless highly toxic, pollutants such as arsenic and chromium, their levels may be elevated because of urban sprawl.”
There are, however, two pieces of relatively good news.
Naidenko says it may take decades of exposure for potential cancer to result, so people have time to make their own choices. Secondly, most healthy people have the ability to convert some of the toxic chromium 6 into necessary chromium 3. But that process may be inhibited by a lack of stomach acid, making those with medical conditions that suppress stomach acid production potentially at risk.
For immediate protection, Naidenko suggests using a reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration system. It’s the only type known to take out all minerals.
Although, Yamada cautions that no one has tested RO units to the point that it would be a sure protection against levels found in Honolulu’s tap water. “You could be putting down a lot of money for a false sense of security,” Yamada says.
Bottled water is also not a panacea either. Naidenko says, on average, 25 percent of bottled water is tap water. If consumers want to check with local bottlers, they should specifically ask about testing of chromium 6. Still, with an absence of a legal standard for chromium 6, there could be potential confusion over total chromium versus chromium 6 numbers.
Curtis would like Hawaii to get past the confusion and come clean.
“We’ve had a problem with chromium in soil in Hawaii,” Curtis says. “There have been a number of discoveries on military bases, on former pesticide mixing areas, and former agricultural lands that have had very high hits of chromium. But it has always been assumed first by the DOH that any chromium found is automatically chromium 3 unless somebody else proves its chromium 6 and, second, that there has been the assumption that we shouldn’t push this, that everything is okay and that people don’t understand risk.”
Understanding risk depends on getting to an agreed upon standard, according to Yamada.
“Like most states, we depend heavily on the federal government to establish the maximum contaminant levels,” Yamada says. “We’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that implies that there is a very questionable or weak base by which people are making some assumptions. We feel very strongly that the process needs to be carried through. The scientists and the experts really need to review the health effects and bring in their opinions. That’s ongoing at the federal level with the EPA and in the State of California.”
Late last year, California lowered its proposed level from 0.06 to 0.02 ppb.
While Curtis is pushing for more testing and mapping of Oahu soil and water samples, he, Yamada, and Kawata agree that everyone must pay greater attention to becoming a better steward of our collective environment. The Environmental Working Group report and the EPA’s attention to chromium 6 is a wakeup call we all need to heed, they say. But while the EPA creates guildelines and considers regulations, all three of them will still be drinking Honolulu’s water.
The entire interview with Henry Curtis, Erwin Kawata, and Stuart Yamada is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. If you have an idea for a Town Square discussion, reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]