msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/22/2010 5:04:33 PM ET 2010-12-22T22:04:33

In a rare swift reaction to new testing by activists, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that the federal government will likely tighten drinking water standards for hexavalent chromium — the chemical made famous by Erin Brockovich.

EPA chief Lisa Jackson issued a statement following a report showing hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, in the drinking water of 31 cities across the country.

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"EPA has already been working" to better regulate chromium-6, she said. "However, as a mother and the head of EPA, I am still concerned about the prevalence of chromium-6 in our drinking water."

"EPA will work with local and state officials to get a better picture of exactly how widespread this problem is," she added. "In the meantime, EPA will issue guidance to all water systems in the country to help them develop monitoring and sampling programs specifically for chromium-6."

The federal government's total chromium standard in drinking water is 100 parts per billion. California has proposed a goal for safe limits for chromium 6 at 0.06 parts per billion.

Earlier this week, the Environmental Working Group released a study that analyzed drinking water across the country. The five cities with the highest levels of chromium-6 were Norman, Okla. (12.9 ppb); Honolulu, Hawaii (2 ppb); Riverside, Calif. (1.69 ppb); Madison, Wis. (1.58 ppb); and San Jose, Calif. (1.34 ppb).

California's two Democratic U.S. senators on Tuesday urged the EPA to tighten federal standards quickly.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate environment and public works committee, said she plans to introduce legislation with Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would set a deadline for the EPA to establish an enforceable standard.

The committee will also hold a hearing on the issue in February.

"There are no enforceable federal standards to protect the public from hexavalent chromium in tap water," Boxer and Feinstein said in a letter to Jackson.

The EPA currently tests for total chromium levels but the letter said the tests do not show precise amounts of chromium-6. In addition, the agency's chromium standard is outdated because it was set nearly two decades ago, the letter said.

In September, the EPA released a draft of a scientific review. When the assessment is finalized in 2011, the agency will determine whether new standards need to be set.

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Studies show that chromium-6 can cause cancer in people and has also been found to cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes and liver of animals.

The public became aware of the dangers of chromium-6 as a result of the hit movie "Erin Brockovich" in 2000, which followed a case in which Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. was accused of leaking the contaminant into the groundwater of Hinckley, a small desert town.

The utility subsequently agreed to a $333 million settlement with more than 600 residents who blamed the contamination for a variety of health problems including cancer.

"The science behind chromium-6 is evolving," Jackson said in her statement. "EPA is already on a path toward identifying and addressing any potential health threats from excessive, long-term exposure with its new draft assessment released this past fall.

"This assessment still needs to be reviewed by independent scientists as an essential step toward tightening drinking water standards for chromium-6," she added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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