SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA (KPLC) - What's in your drinking water? It's probably not a question you ask each time you head over to the tap.
A non-profit group of scientists encourages people in Southwest Louisiana and around the country to think again. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) put together a report highlighting a specific cancer-causing chemical that you may be ingesting every time you drink. It's the chemical you may have first heard about sitting in a movie theater at the turn of the millennium.
The real-life Erin Brockovich fought for a small town in California where chromium 6 contaminated the groundwater.
Now, EWG is reviewing test results of drinking water all across the country. It reports "water supplies serving 218 million Americans" contain more chromium 6 than California scientists have deemed safe including water systems in Southwest Louisiana.
So what exactly does chromium 6 do?
"Chromium 6 is genotoxic; it actually can disrupt DNA and lead to mutations and that's what leads to cancer," said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. "So exposure at low concentrations to materials that are genotoxic can actually lead to these cancers over long periods of time."
Andrews said because of these harmful effects, California's Public Health Goal is 0.02 parts per billion.
"This was a value published by California as a public health goal and what it is represents is one excess case of cancer drinking that water over a lifetime," said Andrews.
Amounts of the carcinogen in our region vary, as the chemical can occur naturally, and it's used in different industries.
"Used in chrome plating, actually used to coat the cooling towers at power plants, as well as treating wood and treating leather," explained Andrews.
Calcasieu (0.015 ppb) and Allen (0.011 ppb) parishes come in under that health goal. Cameron (0.057 ppb) and Jeff Davis (0.125 ppb) are just above. The highest value, according to the data collected from the EPA is in Beauregard Parish with an average of 0.485 parts per billion.
"That would be approximately 25 excess cancers in a million people over a lifetime," said Andrews.
It's called a carcinogen; studies show in may lead to cancer, and some top minds say water systems should have less than 0.02 parts per billion. So how much is allowed by EPA standards?
Turns out, there is no EPA standard for chromium 6. Currently, California is the only state that has set its own legal limit at 10 ppb.
"There was testing done over the last 2 years that at least gives us information about how prevalent it is, but the federal government really hasn't acted to establish what would be a safe drinking water standard," said Andrews.
Dr. Parham Jaberi, assistant state health officer with the Louisiana Department of Health, said evidence is being collected now to potentially create that standard.
"We realize it's a harmful substance so we want to limit it as much as possible in any form of exposure," said Jaberi, "and what the EPA is hopefully going to do is give us what that safe level is in drinking water for our residents."
In the city of DeRidder, average chromium 6 levels reported by the EPA are at 1.2 ppb. The DeRidder water plant supervisor, Roy Keen, said the DHH has said the city's system "has no issues with chromium," and most recent tests from 2016 "show no detection of chromium."
The EPA responded to our inquiry, saying in part:
"EPA is actively working on the development of the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment of hexavalent chromium, which will include a comprehensive evaluation of potential health effects associated with hexavalent chromium, and EPA anticipates that the draft IRIS assessment will be released for public comment in 2017."
Until then, Andrews encourages people to get informed.
"It's not necessarily the level of concern of stop drinking the water entirely, but it is something to be aware about and be informed about," he said.
Water-drinking residents are encouraged not to panic, but to consider what they might be sipping on.
EWG scientists say there are simple at home remedies to filter your water.