Environmental Working Group Should Win Annual Junk-Science Award

If there ever was a year-end, junk-science award, it should go to the Environmental Working Group — every year.  Perhaps more than any group, they regularly issue junk-science “studies” alleging myriad ills caused by man-made chemicals.

Most recently, they issued a report on hexavalent chromium (aka., chromium-6), noting: “The National Toxicology Program has found that hexavalent chromium in drinking water shows clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of otherwise rare gastrointestinal tumors (NTP 2007, 2008).” The same is basically true for broccoli. Lots of substances — including many healthy fruits and vegetables–give rodents cancer when they are given relatively high doses.

Such tests tell us little about impacts on humans exposed to trace amounts in food and water.  And the amounts that EWG reports in its study are extremely low–reaching a peak of just 12.9 parts per billion in one city’s drinking water.   This tiny amount is supposed to scare us because it is “200 times” higher than a ridiculously low standard of 0.06 parts per billion that California regulators proposed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the “safe level” for total chromium in drinking water at 100 parts per billion.

Both EWG and California regulators target this substance because it has been the subject of considerable press coverage and Hollywood sensationalism. Trial lawyers made chromium 6 an issue when they initiated a class action lawsuit in the early 1990s. The case proved nothing, but the lawyers made a killing in the settlement — $133 million for the lawyers alone. And the story generated more dollars when featured in the film Erin Brockovich.

The legal case and film focused on an alleged cancer cluster in Hinkley, Calif., that trial lawyers said resulted from elevated levels of chromium 6 in the town’s drinking water. But their claim was highly unlikely for a number of reasons that CEI highlighted when the film came out in 2000. In addition, Michael Fumento did some stellar investigative reporting on the topic that clearly debunked trial-lawyer claims. There was no evidence of a cancer cluster in Hinkley at the time nor is there any today.  And recent survey research confirmed this reality yet again. The cancer rate in Hinkley is actually lower than expected for the area.

But EWG doesn’t let the facts get in its way because hype helps them pressure regulators and lawmakers into take action.  Along with its “study,” the group launched a petition on its website calling for EPA action. The group suggests that their report prompted EPA action: “Within 72 hours of the release of this report, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced new actions to detect chromium-6 contamination in the nation’s drinking water.”

It’s more likely that EWG conveniently planned the release of its “study.” According to the agency, the chemical is the subject of a routine review, and tests were underway before EWG issued its report. Nonetheless, the EWG campaign may push EPA to be more aggressive because it’s now headline news. In fact, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson followed up on the EWG report in a meeting with senators to address concerns raised by the activist report and brief the lawmakers on EPA actions.

If EPA imposes an onerous chromium 6 standard because of activist pressures, public health benefits are likely to be zero. Unfortunately, the compliance costs could be high, particularly for relatively poor, rural communities — that have few resources to waste.

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