EDITORIAL: Putting ‘Toxic’ Water Into Proper Context


Monday, September 26, 2016 || By Michael Romain || EDITORIAL || @maywoodnews

Yes, there’s stuff in the water. No, local governments aren’t to blame. No, you aren’t in immediate danger 

The recent release of a report by the Environmental Working Group showing unsafe levels of the toxin hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, in the water supplies of more than 200 million Americans has caused quite the panic. And, it seems, too much of it.

Two days after we published the Sept. 24 story, “Cancer-causing Toxin Found in West Suburban Drinking Water,” I got a call from Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins, who said that residents were frantically calling her office with worries that Maywood’s water is undrinkable and that village officials may be to blame for this catastrophe.

To be clear, you can still drink the water and no, your local village manager or elected officials or public works people aren’t to blame for a problem with national significance that affects more than 200 million people.

As the EWG report, and our story based on it, makes clear, chromium-6 has been found in the drinking water supply of most communities in metro Chicago and in many metro areas across the country. The blame lies with lax federal regulators, crooked, profit-hungry corporations who lobby against reasonable safety standards, and the inability of most states across the country (apparently all of them except California) to want to really grapple with this problem.

You should be calling your state and federal lawmakers and regulatory agencies, not the mayor’s office. To call the mayor’s office or village manager or local trustee about this issue would be like calling them about the arctic glaciers melting or because Illinois hasn’t passed a budget.

Secondly, chromium-6 does indeed appear to be cancerous, but it’s not the only, and probably far from the worst, cancerous substance that is all-too prevalent in our everyday lives. Moreover, finding correlation between certain carcinogens and actual, individual cases of cancer is often virtually impossible.

Consider that the public health goal set by California scientists is 0.02 parts per billion and the state’s legal limit for chromium-6 is 10 parts per billion. A limit of 0.02 parts per billion, as the EWG notes, is the amount that poses “no more than a one-in-a-million risk of cancer for people who drink [the water] daily for 70 years.”

The level at which chromium-6 was detected in samples across Cook County ranged from no detection at all to 1 part per billion. The average level county-wide was 0.188, which is closer to the level found in water supplies of west suburban communities like Maywood, Melrose Park, Bellwood, Oak Park, Forest Park and River Forest.

Even at this heightened level, an individual’s chances of getting cancer from chromium-6-infected drinking water is still around one-in-a-million over basically a lifetime. We don’t know how long chromium-6 has been an unsafe presence in the drinking water of millions of people (although the EWG detected it six years ago).

Still, over time, your chances of getting fatally struck by a car are probably significantly higher than your chances of developing cancer due to chromium-6 in the drinking water (around one in a million versus around one in 13,000).

The point is not to panic. This isn’t a Flint, Michigan situation, which involved the outright negligence and corruption of local, state and federal officials that led to an immediate public health crisis.

And unlike less than one part per-billion of chromium-6, the absurdly high amount of lead found in Flint’s drinking water means that not only is significant damage already done (consider the mothers who lost babies to lead poisoning), but the worst damage is yet to even reveal itself (because the effects of lead reveal themselves subtly and over a lifetime).

Thirdly, you can remove chromium-6 (and the thousands of other potentially cancerous and toxic substances) from your drinking water by purchasing a filter. The EWG even has a water filter purchasing guide to help you select the right one.

So, calm down, don’t panic. Your water hasn’t been rendered immediately undrinkable. And it’s unlikely that your or your relative’s case of cancer is directly related to chromium-6.

You can be fairly certain, though, that our environment has slowly, gradually become contaminated with all manner of cancer-causing substances. That’s, in part, because of the nature of our modern, industrial economy. But it’s also, in part, because of toxic politics that allow some of the country’s largest polluters to make a profit at the expense of our health.

For years, companies whose actions have led to this chromium-6 pollution schemed with public relations companies, lawyers, lobbyists and crank scientists to discredit the correlation between chromium-6 and cancer and/or to block attempts by lawmakers to pass laws and other measures designed to monitor, regulate and control the presence of chromium-6 in water supplies.

The best solution to this widespread problem is to educate ourselves about how this corruption works, to develop disciplined resolve over irrational fear and to get organized.

Call your U.S. congressperson or state lawmaker. Call the Illinois and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies. Demand to know what Illinois plans to do about monitoring and regulating chromium-6, and whether or not the state plans on setting a legally enforceable limit (as California did). Sign the EWG’s petition. But whatever you do, don’t panic. VFP


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