The water you get from your faucet is perfectly safe. The scientists at the Louisville Water Company, and the experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in agreement that Louisville’s tap water is pure and drinkable. So why do we hear scary messages repeatedly from the local press that our water contains dangerous amounts of toxic cancer-causing chemicals?
The problem seems to be, that very few chemistry majors go into journalism. There is an irresistible temptation to give prominence to stories of horror and danger; rather than the merely prosaic. Thousands of airliners land safely every day in America, but that’s not news. Crashes are what make the evening news. And when it comes to news about science, the mainstream press will almost always get it wrong.
A good case in point is James Bruggers’ story in last Sunday’s Courier-Journal, with the scary headline: “Louisville Water Co. finds cancer-causing chemical in its water.” Bruggers, the C-J’s environmental reporter, is known for his Henny-Penny doomsday pieces, which are usually calculated to reveal some imminent ecological disaster (based upon a press release from some leftist environmental group), and then calling for swift and massive governmental intervention to save the planet (or the children, or the whales, or whatever).
There are several problems with the Bruggers article. First, the claim is based upon incompetent junk science; second, the story is not news; and third, it is the height of journalistic irresponsibility to fearmonger about a municipal water supply that all competent experts rate as perfectly safe.
The story of chromium-6 in the water supply has been around since last December, and the C-J has written about it before. The hoax originated with a leftist environmental organization calling itself The Environmental Working Group; a California-based lobbyist group funded by a number of pro-socialist foundations (such as the Henry A. Wallace Global Fund, The Ted Turner Foundation, and The Barbra Streisand Foundation.)
Hoping to capitalize on the success of the Julia Roberts movie, “Erin Brockovich,” the EWG released a “study” late last year, claiming that they found a chemical called hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium-6) in the tap water of 31 out of 35 cities sampled nationwide. This was the same chemical the paralegal Brokovitch claimed was in the drinking water of Hinkley, California; resulting in a large out-of-court settlement.
The press, of course, has been reluctant to reveal that the Brockovitch/Hinkley story is largely a hoax. In point of fact, the residents of Hinkley do not show any evidence of an increased rate of cancers. From 1996 to 2008, 196 cancers were identified among residents of the census tract that includes Hinkley — a slightly lower number than the 224 cancers that would have been expected given its demographic characteristics, according to epidemiologist John Morgan, who conducted the California Cancer Registry survey.
So what’s the big deal about chromium-6? The EWG report from one sample at an unknown location in Louisville showed a chromium-6 level of 0.14 ppb (that’s Parts Per Billion). Of the 31 large water utilities with chromium-6 detections, Louisville’s level of 0.14 was lower than 21 other cities. Chromium is a naturally occurring element found in soil and rocks. It often exists in two forms: chromium-3, which is an important nutrient for the body and chromium-6, which is often formed from industrial operations and has been demonstrated to be toxic in high amounts when inhaled.
After the EWG report surfaced, three independent laboratories were hired by the Louisville Water Company to analyze water samples for levels of chromium-6. There were two rounds of testing, which showed that total Chromium levels in Louisville’s drinking water are 99.5% lower than the federal standard. The Ohio River, LWC’s source, contains trace amounts, 0.07 ppb, of chromium-6. Drinking water leaving the Crescent Hill Filtration Plant had a trace amount, 0.05 ppb of chromium-6. (The amount of chromium-6 in Hinkley’s water averaged 0.50 parts per million.)
Nobody contests the cause-and-effect link between inhaled chromium-6 and lung cancer. But ingesting trace amounts of chromium-6 is quite a different matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. has examined the issue extensively and found no scientific evidence that chromium-6 taken by mouth is carcinogenic. This should not surprise a chemist because it is well established that hydrochloric acid (abundant in the stomach’s digestive juice) converts chromium-6 to the innocuous chromium-3.
Here’s what the EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System, updated in 1998, says about chromium-6: “No data were located in the available literature that suggested that it is carcinogenic by the oral route of exposure.” Other studies have shown that rodents dosed at 25 parts per million and dogs dosed at 11.2 parts per million displayed no ill effects. It is important that readers remember the order of magnitude difference between parts per billion and parts per million.
Despite the scientific fact that Louisville’s drinking water supply does not contain enough chromium-6 to pose any danger to health (you ingest more chromium-6 from using stainless steel cookware and flatware), the local press flooded Louisville with numerous outlandish hyperbolic “cry of wolf” stories:
- WAVE-3’s David Williams ran a story last December, titled “Louisville’s drinking water under scrutiny,” warning: “Before you turn on your faucet and take a drink of water, you may consider the results of the latest study from an environmental group that says chromium-6 – a harmful chemical made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich – could be present in harmful amounts in Louisville’s drinking water.”
- FOX-41’s Jennifer Baileys, similarly, reported: “Louisville water contains toxin,” in which she said, “You can’t smell it, taste it or see it, but a report by The Environmental Working Group states it is there.”
- LEO’s Jonathan Meador, in December, ran an article, “Chromium in Louisville’s drinking water exceeds safe limits,” containing the flat lie, “We are now among 25 American cities whose tap water contains unsafe levels of carcinogenic hexavalent chromium.”
- And, just last month, Rachel Hurd Anger wrote at Louisville.com that “Louisville’s public drinking water contains deadly chromium-6.”
“Toxin,” “unsafe,” “harmful,” “carcinogenic,” and “deadly,” are terms which are the journalistic equivalent of falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. They are as damaging as they are untrue, and contribute to the liberal paranoia that—but for the Deus ex machina intervention of the federal government—we’re all going to die of some dread disease. The demands of “public safety” have constituted the raison d’être for every totalitarian tyranny in modern history.
The truth, as we have suggested, is much more prosaic: “Louisville’s drinking water is safe and high-quality,” said Greg Heitzman, Louisville Water President and CEO. “Louisville Water was pro-active in initiating this monitoring to confirm the quality we provide every day. We will continue to follow the EPA guidelines regarding chromium-6 now that trace amounts can now be detected with advanced, analytical technology.”
Currently, the EPA is conducting research to determine if it will create a regulatory standard for chromium-6. “Ensuring safe drinking water is our top priority,” said Dr. Rengao Song, Ph.D, Louisville Water’s Chief Chemist. “Public health must be protected by thorough, scientific research which will determine any health impact of trace amounts of contaminants.”
So, dear readers, feel free to add a splash of fine Louisville tap water to your Maker’s Mark on the rocks this evening: Louisville’s drinking water is just fine, thank you.
IRONIC POSTSCRIPT: Google is now in the process of releasing the latest version of its highly-acclaimed internet browser. They’re calling it “Chrome 6.”
Learn more: Don’t buy into the chromium-6 hysteria
Learn more: Diluting the “chromium-6 in water” panic
Learn more: LWC report- Testing Confirms Quality of Louisville’s Drinking Water
Learn more: Erin Brockovich Story Largely Fiction
Learn more: Erin Brockovich Exposed