The chemical that made Erin Brockovich a household name is being debated in state government.
Hexavalent chromium, also called chromium 6, is both a naturally occurring chemical and an industrial pollutant and carcinogen found in drinking water supplies throughout New Jersey and the nation.
But whether the levels in New Jersey’s drinking water present a health risk was debated Monday before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, which was gathering testimony on the issue.
It is the chemical that polluted the water of Hinckley, California, prompting Brockovich to become an environmental activist as portrayed in a 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts.
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The highest level of hexavalent chromium found in the state was 3.8 parts per billion, said Ann Mason, senior director of the American Chemistry Council’s Northeast Region, which represents manufacturers. That is well below both the federal standard for total chromium of 100 parts per billion and California’s standard of 10 parts per billion, she said.
Mason said the human body detoxifies hexavalent chromium by converting it into trivalent chromium, or chromium 3, which she called an essential micronutrient.
She said studies have shown that only huge doses of the chemical — at a range of 5,000 to 100,000 parts per billion — pose a cancer risk.
But David Pringle of Clean Water Action and Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club disagreed, saying the state’s Drinking Water Quality Institute recommended a state standard of .07 parts per billion in 2010 but the Department of Environmental Protection never adopted it.
“It’s not surprising we are not in agreement with the American Chemistry Council,” said Pringle. “The council is saying, ‘Everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here.”
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Tittel said New Jersey has hundreds of industrial sites where chromium was left behind as a pollutant, making the issue even more critical in areas of high contamination.
Michael Furrey, chairman of the New Jersey section of the American Water Works Association, which represents all aspects of the drinking-water industry, said he believes the Drinking Water Quality Institute is the best source of guidance for legislators.
Several speakers said they felt the institute has been shut down by Gov. Chris Christie, but the institute has a Feb. 17 meeting coming up and there are minutes online from a Sept. 16 meeting.
DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the institute stopped meeting in September 2010 and resumed in April 2014.