The environmental scare industry is big business, and the alarmist Environmental Working Group has struck a chord with a warning about chemicals in drinking water.
In a bogus public health study released in December, the group looked for traces of the chemical hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, in water supplies of 35 cities and found it in 31. Twenty-one cities, including San Jose and Riverside, had concentrations above California's "Public Health Goal" of 0.06 parts per billion.
Within days after the group reported its results in a news release, California's two U.S. senators called for action by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA head promised action.
There is less to all this than meets the eye, however.
The proposed California goal of 0.06 parts per billion in water is the estimated 1-in-1 million lifetime cancer risk level. Regulators at the California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment say that means "for every million people who drink two liters of water with that level of chromium daily for 70 years, no more than one person would be expected to develop cancer from exposure to chromium-6." They picked this very conservative, very low level because "the '1-in-1 million' risk level is widely accepted by doctors and scientists as the 'negligible risk' standard."
You would never know that from the hyperbolic pronouncements of the Environmental Working Group, which inaccurately called the proposed California goal for chromium-6 a "safe maximum recently proposed by California regulators".
The group ignored California regulators' admonition that "a (public health goal) is not a regulatory standard [but] is only one step in the process of developing an enforceable standard that is set by the California Department of Public Health for drinking water."
It has long been known that inhaled, but not orally ingested, chromium-6 is carcinogenic in humans. The route of exposure is a critical risk factor in toxicology. For example, drinking a glass of wine is healthful but pouring it into your lungs can cause pneumonia.
Chromium-6 can induce a rare type of gastrointestinal cancer in rodents when they are fed extremely high levels of it. Even at levels 300 times higher than those found in drinking water of 95 percent of Americans, however, no effect is found. These animal studies were the basis for California's public health goal, which is one one-thousandth of the lowest amount of chromium-6 it took to cause cancer in the lab rodents.
Testing in animals can be useful, but its value is limited when, as with chromium-6, human exposure studies lead us to a contrary conclusion.
Chromium-6 is the chemical made famous in the Julia Roberts flick "Erin Brockovich," about industry-caused cancer in Hinkley, which led to a $333 million settlement by PG&E. But a California Cancer Registry survey released in December actually found fewer cancers than expected in Hinkley.
The folks at the Environmental Working Group were not about to let this get in the way of a good cry of "wolf," however.
Predictably, politicians and regulators have taken the warnings seriously. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are threatening to introduce legislation setting a deadline for EPA to set an enforceable federal standard for chromium-6 in water. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the analysis "groundbreaking science" and said it had "troubling" implications. This is the kind of ready-fire-aim decision-making we have come to expect from the EPA.
Americans want and deserve safe drinking water. But we can achieve that without irresponsible activists pushing for unreasonable standards based on distorted science -- and politicians and regulators pandering to them.
JEFF STIER is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. HENRY MILLER, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.