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Carcinogen Levels Rising in Groundwater at UC Davis

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Photo Courtesy of The Sacramento Bee

Photo Courtesy of The Sacramento Bee

UC Davis Responsible for Contaminated Drinking Water?

Elevated levels of the carcinogen Chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium) were found in groundwater at a UC Davis former animal-testing laboratory.  According to a news report in the Sacramento Bee, the laboratory conducted research from 1960 to 1989 on the biological effects of radiation for various agencies that included the U.S. Department of Energy.  The report states that research at the site included exposing hundreds of Beagles to strontium-90, cobalt-60 and injecting them with radium-226 to learn how humans might survive nuclear exposure.

The source of the chromium-6, however, remains a mystery.  The environmental manager at UC Davis, Sue Fields, noted that although chromium-6 is typically found in areas where there has been a lot of industrial activity, such as electroplating, no such activity has occurred at the site or in Davis.  Additionally, the pattern of contaminated wells does not match the areas where toxic waste was disposed at the site.  Fields theorizes that perhaps naturally occurring chromium-3 mixed with sludge that was dumped into three landfills at the site causing the dangerous levels of hexavalent chromium.

According to the article, the danger is that aquafiers and groundwater could become contaminated in the rural area nearby the former lab.   Because those wells are private, however, there is not much data to determine if the contamination has spread.  According to the report, at least one private property owner in the Binning tract area of Davis has recorded levels five times above state standards.  The property owner, Martha Daschback, has been forced to replace her well water with bottled water due to the contamination.  The property, however, is located approximately five miles north of the former research laboratory.

While 42 of the 100 monitoring wells at the former laboratory have shown unsafe levels of chromium-6, elevated levels have also been found in wells in nearby Dixon and Woodland.  This certainly raises a concern that the problem may be more widespread.  More importantly, it raises the specter of more than one source of the contamination.

Potential Health Concerns

Occupational exposure to higher levels chromium-6 compounds has been shown to cause lung cancer in workers. It was initially unknown, however, if exposure through ingesting elevated levels in food or water was hazardous.  The potentially dangerous effects of chromium-6 first gained national attention with the 2000 film, “Erin Brockovich,” where Ms. Brockovich successfully sued Pacific Gas and Electric over chromium-6 contamination in her community’s drinking water.

In a September, 2007 report, the National Toxicology Program found that a compound containing hexavalent chromium causes cancer in laboratory animals after oral ingestion.  Researchers discovered tumors in areas where tumors are rarely seen in laboratory animals, such as the oral cavity and small intestine.  Further, the increase in both benign and malignant tumors in the small intestine increased in both male and female mice as the dose increased.  The lowest doses of chromium-6 used were about 10 times higher than the most highly contaminated source waters identified by California.  The question then, is whether exposure at lower levels over a period of time more lengthy than that conducted by the study will have the same or similar carcinogenic effects.

Legal Issues

Lawsuits involving water pollution can be brought under either state or federal law.  Oftentimes, proving the source of the problem can be difficult.  Moreover, where the source and responsible party can be proven with sufficient certainty, it can still be difficult to prove causation.  That is, the connection between the contamination and injured party with a reliable degree of scientific certainty.  Where the source, party responsible and cause of the injury can be proven, however, the law imposes significant liability and permits substantial damages to the victims.

A person who suspects their groundwater has been contaminated would be well advised to contact an experienced water contamination attorney who will protect their rights and hold the at-fault parties responsible.

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