In a letter obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate environment and public works committee, said she plans to introduce legislation with California colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would set a deadline for the EPA to establish an enforceable standard for the chemical also known as chromium 6. The committee will also hold a hearing on the issue in February.
The letter was sent after the release of a study by the Environmental Working Group that analyzed drinking water in 35 cities across the country. The five cities with the highest levels of chromium 6 were Norman, Oklahoma; Honolulu, Hawaii; Riverside, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and San Jose, California.
The chemical is commonly discharged from steel and pulp mills, metal-plating plants and leather-tanning facilities, the group said in the report.
"There are no enforceable federal standards to protect the public from hexavalent chromium in tap water," read the letter to EPA chief Lisa 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 In addition, the agency's chromium standard is outdated because it was set nearly two decades ago, the letter said.
EPA spokesman Jalil Isa could not immediately comment on the letter. However, the agency did issue a response to the study.
"Ensuring safe drinking water for all Americans is a top priority for EPA," the statement said. "The agency regularly reevaluates drinking water standards and, based on new science on chromium 6, had already begun a rigorous and comprehensive review of its health effects."
In September, the agency 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.
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 federal government's current total chromium standard is 100 parts per billion. California has set a goal for safe limits for chromium 6 at 0.06 parts per billion.
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.