It’s required by law that tobacco products bear the U. S. Surgeon General’s warning, which offers a friendly reminder: If you use tobacco, you will get cancer and you will die. Well, maybe the packages don’t say that exactly, but they might as well. The warning is there to make users fully aware of the health risks and allows each person to make his or her own decision about tobacco use.

But what would happen if the same label was put on something that you had no choice but to use — something like water. If every water faucet, drinking fountain and showerhead bore a skull and crossbones label, it might be a little disconcerting. But it seems as though this severe course of action might be necessary after a well-known carcinogen was found in tap water in Ann Arbor, along with 31 other cities around the United States.

According to the Environmental Working Group — a non-profit organization dedicated to public safety from toxic chemicals — there are alarming amounts of hexavalent chromium (Cr-6) in the drinking water of many U.S. cities. Hexavalent chromium is a toxin that, if ingested, increases a person’s risk of gastrointestinal cancer and increases concentrations of chromium in body tissue.

The group’s study tested unfiltered water samples — from places like libraries, homes and hospitals — in 35 cities for Cr-6. California is currently the only state requiring water companies to test for the toxin and the state has determined that 0.06 parts per billion should be the safest maximum allowable concentration. But the 35 cities tested averaged about three times this amount. Ann Arbor had the 12th highest concentration among those tested at 0.21 ppb.

This is a surprising result after the same chemical made such a big splash in the mid-1990s. Hexavalent chromium is the toxin that the California company, Pacific Gas & Electric, was sued $330 million for having in their water. The toxin was deemed responsible for the devastation to the health of the residents in Hinkley, Calif. The case was the basis of the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” which brough even more awareness to the topic.

As a result of the national exposure to this issue, the Environmental Protection Agency tested Cr-6, and found it to have carcinogenic effects. But even with this classification as a threat to humans, the EPA has not seen fit to regulate — or even require testing for — the amount of Cr-6 in tap water.

There is a federal limit of 100 ppb of total chromium for tap water, but this means that any form of chromium — including the toxic Cr-6 — counts toward this total sum of 100 ppb. So if a sample of water meets the EPA regulation for chromium concentration with Cr-6 only, the water would have over 1600 times the suggested amount of the carcinogen. It’s almost like the EPA is playing Russian roulette with toxic chemicals. Only the study by the EWG has uncovered that the cylinder is full about 90 percent of the time.

One might think that the Safe Drinking Water Act of the 1970s would help with this predicament we’re facing. But adding to the list of chemicals to be regulated by the SDWA isn’t the speediest process, primarily because of all the research that must occur before a chemical is deemed a toxin. I guess that calling something a “likely carcinogen to humans” isn’t enough for the EPA. Cr-6 has been proven to have toxic effects on people and animals, so what is stopping it from becoming blacklisted by the EPA? Making Cr-6 a federally regulated chemical could save countless lives.

If the EPA won’t step in at the federal level, the state of Michigan or even the city of Ann Arbor must do something. It’s both disturbing and embarrassing that our city is mentioned in this report. It’s even more disturbing that we were listed as having three times the suggested limit of a known carcinogen in our drinking water. Ann Arbor needs to attack this issue head on. Not just for the safety of its own citizens, but to create a path for cities all over the U.S. to follow. We can’t wait on the EPA to show us the way out of this potentially deadly situation. Cr-6 should be strictly regulated by the city of Ann Arbor and the state to avoid any lasting repercussions.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu

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