WASHINGTON — A study showing the presence of a cancer-causing chemical in Norman's drinking water shouldn't discourage people from drinking the water, but should be a reason for more testing and more study about the risk, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday.
“I don't think anybody should be afraid of drinking the water,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said after testifying before a Senate committee about the safety of the nation's drinking water.
She said people should be assured that the EPA is following up on an environmental group's study by providing guidance and technical assistance to water system managers who want to do their own tests for chromium-6.
The Environmental Working Group released a report in December showing Norman had the highest rate of chromium-6 — hexavalent chromium — in its drinking water of any of the 35 U.S. cities tested. The test, conducted from a sample from a single tap in Norman, showed the water had a chromium-6 level of 12.9 parts per billion.
Jackson said the study was just a snapshot, but was consistent with other studies showing chromium-
Any new standard for the chemical would be years away, and it would be “irresponsible” to guess what level of the chemical might be acceptable, Jackson said. Though some witnesses testified Wednesday that the EPA's current standard for chromium is outdated, Jackson said the science is still evolving in regard to chromium-
Officials from Norman and other cities that had their water tested have taken issue with the Environmental Working Group study and some complained Wednesday that media reports about it caused undue concern among residents.
Steve Lewis, Norman's city manager, was scheduled to testify Wednesday at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, but couldn't get out of Oklahoma because of the recent snowstorm.
However, in his written testimony, Lewis said the city's water is tested regularly for total chromium and that the total chromium levels for its different water sources have all been below the EPA's maximum contaminant level of 100 parts per billion.
He said the Environmental Working Group had refused to share the sampling data details with the city, “so confirmation of their report has not been possible.
“What we do know is that a single water sample was used to undermine public confidence in the safety of our water supply.”
A chromium-6 working group has been established in Norman to monitor chromium public health issues, Lewis said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, the top Republican on the committee, called the report biased, with conclusions “skewed” to fit the group's agenda.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, defended his group's study at the hearing and said that none of the utilities now complaining about the study would have tested the water for chromium-6 if the study hadn't been done.
After the hearing, Cook said the group's methodology was part of the study and that the only information not given to Norman was the address of the tap where the water sample was taken.
Asked whether Norman's water was safe to drink, Cook said, “I would drink the water. Cancer is a long-term disease, with a long gestation period.”
Cook said Norman was one of the cities tested because it had reported relatively high amounts of total chromium.
Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, testified that studies at the NTP have shown a water-soluble salt of chromium-
In regard to the results of the Environmental Working Group study, she said, “A single sample, you don't even know where the contamination is coming from and even if it's real.”
She said, “I think it means that we have to look further.”