Chromium 6: Health hazard or unnecessary hype?

Posted at 10:51 PM, Nov 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-17 06:18:42-05

A Four in Your Corner investigation into the safety of your water finds that the federal government is not setting limits for the amount of a chemical that's been linked to cancer.

"I just felt like something was wrong with my body."  When Tammy Binowski started feeling sick, she thought it was something minor. "I didn't have any nausea or anything unexplainable."

But, doctors did find an explanation: two forms of cancer, setting off a long battle to save her life.

Years later, she's now in remission. "I'm a 10 year survivor of cervical cancer and I'm an 8 year survivor of melanoma," says  Binowski.

But complications from cancer treatments left her with a compromised immune system.  So she's cautious about everything she eats and drinks -- especially water, after learning about the stunning results of a nationwide study.

It revealed 75% of America's drinking water contained a cancer-causing chemical known as chromium-6.  "I knew immediately from the movie Erin Brockovich that chromium-6 is dangerous," says Binowski.

The movie is based on the real-life story of the single mom who exposed a case of chromium-6 contamination.  The chemical poisoned a town's drinking water and was linked to a cancer-cluster.  "It's kind of maddening," says Binowski. "It made me a little bit mad."

Mad because until recently, she had no idea the cancerous chemical was also detected in the water supply in some parts of Lee County, where she lives.  "It's something that I use everyday, whether it's for drinking or even showering. You're getting that into that pore, it's going in your body," said Binowski.

The EPA has set a limit for the total amount of chromium allowed in your water, and that includes some forms of chromium which are not toxic.  But there are no federal regulations specifically for chromium-6.  It's been linked gastrointestinal tumors, liver damage and reproductive problems...and even lung cancer if inhaled.

But while the EPA isn't regulating chromium-6, one state is.  In California, scientists have set their own recommended goal, which is essentially no more than one drop for the amount of water that would fill an Olympic-size pool.

They say anything more than that can be a threat to your health.

Here in Southwest Florida, drinking water tests conducted as recently as last year show chromium-6 levels in some parts of Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties were higher than California's recommended goal.  The average for Lee County was more than 3 times higher than California's recommendation.

"I don't think it should be in our drinking water. Somewhere I think we're missing the mark, I really do," says Binowski.

The best way to filter out chromium-6 is a method called reverse osmosis, a process they use at the north plant in Cape Coral.  "If it turns pink, then I know I have presence of chlorine," said Chris Caglioti.

But even there, chromium-6 was detected at one point in 2014.  The production manager suspects it was a defect in the testing process.

But a follow-up test wasn't required, because the EPA doesn't track the chemical.

"They haven't regulated chromium-6 yet.  If they did, and we had a detection, we would have resampled," says Andrew Fenske, water production manger at Cape Coral North Plant.

Fox 4 contacted the U.S. EPA to ask why they haven't set a limit for chromium-6 in your water, considering its link to cancer.  The EPA responded with an email saying they are currently in the process of reviewing potential health effects of chromium-6 and "expects that the draft of their assessment will be released for public comment in 2017."

But that's not soon enough for people like Tammy.  "Knowledge is power, to not know can be dangerous."

And she fears, for some, it could be potentially deadly.  "You never really know these things, but to be as proactive as you possibly can is better than doing nothing and sitting back and praying and hoping nothing happens to you."