Being able to get clean, safe drinking water straight from the tap is a right we're all entitled to. Yet today's news stories report, once again, that the water we drink every day may contain dangerous chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses.
This time, the chemical in question is a compound called hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6. If it sounds familiar, it may be because you saw the movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts. In the film, based on a true story, Roberts as Brockovich campaigns to protect residents of a small California town whose drinking water has been contaminated by hexavalent chromium. In real life, Brockovich, a legal aide, helps the town residents win a $333 million lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric, the company responsible for the contamination.
But that's not the end of the tale. It turns out, hexavalent chromium persists in drinking water in dozens of American cities, including Bethesda, San Jose, Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City (note: If your city is not on the list, it might only mean that the water in your city wasn't analyzed). The toxic chemical is released when plastics, steel, and paper pulp are manufactured; it's also discharged by leather-tanning and metal-plating factories. It can pollute water when soil and rock erode as well. It exists in our drinking water for two reasons: because companies can release it into the environment without much legal or financial consequence; and because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not currently impose regulations on municipalities to eliminate chromium 6 in our water — or at least, to reduce it to much safer levels.
You can get more information from the answers to this list of frequently asked questions; you can also read the full report on hexavalent chromium here. But don't just read the report: take action to protect the water you and your family drink! Here's how:
1) Don't buy bottled water. Much bottled water comes straight from the same source as our drinking water. It looks healthier because it sports a fancy label touting how "pure" it is – but unless the label also says the water has been tested and proven to be free of hexavalent chromium and other contaminants, you'll just be wasting your money. Instead, use your purse power to invest in a reverse osmosis filter (see below).
2) Filter your water at the tap. A reverse osmosis filter uses powerful carbon filters to capture a wide variety of contaminants. Some models sit on your countertop next to the kitchen sink; more expensive, under-the-counter options filter more water over time. Here's a terrific guide that will help you choose a system for your home. Take a look at these models to get an idea of the choices you have and what they could cost. Keep in mind that the common PUR and Brita filters, which do a pretty good job of filtering out sediment and chlorine, DO NOT capture hexavalent chromium. Whatever system you use, remember to change the filter regularly (you can recycle Brita filters here). And don't just drink filtered water; cook with it, too.
3) Contact your elected officials. Demand stronger regulations to require companies to contain the toxic chemicals they generate, rather than release them for the rest of us to clean up. And support efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and your local water municipality to eliminate or reduce the presence of these toxins in the water we drink. Start by contacting your member of Congress and ask for hearings on water safety in the U.S.