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The MCL Dance: Public Health Vs. Cost
Let's Talk About California Setting A Standard for Chromium-6 & Why States & Agencies Set Regulations Higher Than They Should For Toxic Substances.
You can dance if you want to, you can leave your friends behind.
When it comes to what substances are regulated in our water, MCLs are what should protect us. But it’s a bit of dance… dancing priorities, if you will.
Let’s break it down.
MCLs stand for maximum contaminant levels, and they are enforceable regulations put out by the U.S. EPA, thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) established in 1974. States have to abide by MCLs.
An MCL is the legal threshold limit on the amount of a substance allowed in public water systems according to the SDWA. In order to set an MCL, the EPA first looks at what levels of a contaminant can be present with no adverse health issues. That level is called the maximum contaminant level goal, which is a non-enforceable goal.
We also have what are called public health goals. A PHG is the level of a chemical contaminant in drinking water that does not pose a significant risk to health. PHGs are not regulatory standards, but they are based on scientific and public health considerations without regard for cost considerations.
You need this little bit of background to understand what’s happening in California right now.
Back in 1991, I was working as a legal clerk and discovered that this same substance, chromium-6, had contaminated the water in the town of Hinkley, which sparked a years-long environmental investigation, lawsuit, and eventually an eponymous film based on that work. That community is still fighting for clean water.
The water board is now recommending an MCL for chromium-6 in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb). The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has suggested a much more protective public health goal of 0.02 ppb. And an analysis of California’s water systems has found more than 35 million people are exposed to chromium-6 at levels above 0.02 ppb.
There’s so much to unpack here.
California became the first state in the nation to regulate this carcinogen in 2014 and for good reason. Chromium is a cancer-causing heavy metal that has been detected in water samples in 53 of 58 California counties. The state set the MCL for chromium-6 in drinking at 10 ppb.
But in 2017, the MCL was dropped, not because of science but because of business.
California ditched its MCL when The Superior Court of Sacramento County invalidated the standard, saying that, “the state failed to properly consider the economic feasibility of complying with the MCL.”
The SDWA requires the state to determine that the cost of treatment offsets the public health benefits.
In this case, the court did not rule on whether the MCL was economically feasible or that it adequately protected public health, it simply found that the department did not adequately document whether the MCL was cost-effective.
The challenge in California came from the Solano County Taxpayers Association and the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, a trade group whose mission is to improve and enhance a strong business climate for California’s thirty thousand manufacturing, processing, and technology-based companies. The city of Vacaville, California, estimated that the standard would cost about $7.5 million.
But the state promised to revisit the standard and now, six years later it’s recommending the exact same MCL. You’ve gotta be kidding me! Talk about regulatory lip service.
Despite advances in treatment technology and historic levels of funding for drinking water solutions, we are right back where we started.
“Clean water, safe water, and water that’s not harmful for humans should be our number one priority,” said Naaman Starling, who relies on a private well in Monterey County for his drinking water, in a statement. “I have chromium-6 at 27 parts per billion, and we waited six years to just leave [the MCL] at the same level, while leaving many communities exposed to this carcinogen. The state needs to protect our health.”
Water systems have had decades to invest in appropriate treatment while communities have faced tragedy and the health cost burdens because of this chemical. It’s so disheartening.
A robust, peer-reviewed scientific analysis by OEHHA found that long-term exposure to hexavalent chromium in drinking water can lead to stomach and gastrointestinal cancer, reproductive effects, and damage to liver and kidneys.
If the “new” proposed limit is adopted, the State Water Board will leave dangerous amounts of this contaminant present in water supplies and allow some water systems to forgo treatment altogether. Small, rural, communities of color will continue to bear the brunt of exposure with limited resources for replacement water and medical bills.
For reference, the rest of the country uses a federal standard of 100 ppb for total chromium, including other types like chromium-3, which is nontoxic. This federal standard is more than a bit confusing since one type of chromium is a known carcinogen and one isn’t. But those federal standards were created at a time when hexavalent chromium was not linked to cancer. Subsequent studies have shown a direct correlation, and it’s time to update our federal standards too.
Public Health Goals should hold more weight, as the process to establish them is quite detailed and thorough. Scientists compile all relevant information, including studies of the chemical’s effect on animals and humans who have been exposed to it.
With this data, scientists perform a health risk assessment to identify the level of chemical in the drinking water that would pose no significant health effects in people who drink the water every day for seventy years, and OEHHA assumes that adults drink two liters of water each day.
They also take into consideration vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, children, seniors, and those with pre-existing health conditions, before setting the final goal.
PHGs, while not enforceable, do matter for public water systems that must provide information about contaminants in their annual Consumer Confidence Reports and tell customers about the health risks when they exceed the public health goal.
The water board’s proposed MCL is 500 times higher than the PHG.
As mentioned above, MCLs account for the chemical’s health risks along with other factors, such as their detectability, treatability, and the cost of treatment. A chemical’s MCL is required to be as close to its PHG as is “technologically and economically feasible, placing primary emphasis on the protection of public health.”
The State Water Board determined that the economic impact of the proposed regulations would likely exceed $50 million in a 12-month period.
We continue to hear the lulling use of the phrase “Your drinking water is safe,” which is misleading and false. The SDWA does not define “safe”; it barely establishes federal standards for drinking water. Yes, your water might meet federal and state drinking water requirements, but you have to remember the caveats.
That’s why I call it the MCL dance. It’s a safety dance.
Public Comment Period
Tell the water board what you think! Anyone can submit written comments relevant to the proposed regulatory action to the Clerk to the State Water Board by Friday, August 11 by 12 p.m. (noon).
You can submit comments via email to: email@example.com
By fax to 916-341-5620
By mail to:
Clerk to the Board State Water Resources Control Board
P.O. Box 100 Sacramento, CA 95812-2000
By hand-delivery to:
Clerk to the Board State Water Resources Control Board
1001 I Street, 24th Floor Sacramento, CA 95814
For more info, check out this document.
Questioning The EPA’s Approval Process
If you think what’s happening with chromium-6 in California is dismal, just wait until you read about the time they approved a substance a million times higher than what the agency usually considers acceptable for new chemicals.
The EPA approved a component of boat fuel made from discarded plastic that the agency’s own risk formula determined was so hazardous, everyone exposed to the substance continually over a lifetime would be expected to develop cancer.
Keep the conversation going in the comments below. Are you concerned about how chrome-6 and other toxic chemicals are regulated?