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Wave of Water-Quality Concerns Hits the U.S.

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WebMD Health News

April 6, 2001 (Washington) -- Back in 1998, then-President Clinton said that America "has the safest drinking water in the world." But not everyone shares his assessment, and there is a growing unease about the purity of what comes out of the average kitchen tap.

It's been some 25 years since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the first federal water-quality standards in place. "Clearly, just in the last couple of decades, the safety of the water supply has improved dramatically," EPA spokeswoman Robin Woods tells WebMD. However, she notes that America's untreated water supply is more polluted than it was 50 years ago. She also says that people with immune problems or those on chemotherapy should check with their doctors before drinking tap water.

Concerns about water quality flows in and out of America's national consciousness. In fact, one of last year's most successful films, Erin Brockovich, dramatized a water pollution disaster. The real-life lawyer, Ed Masry, who hired Erin Brockovich to track down mysterious illnesses in a small California town, made an appearance on Capitol Hill last week and urged Congress to adopt a new measure that would establish a specific federal standard for chromium 6 -- a dangerous contaminant in drinking water thought to cause cancer.

"What this bill is going to show the people of the U.S. is how much chromium 6 can you drink without it harming you," Masry said.

Masry orchestrated a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some 600 residents of Hinkley, Calif., against Pacific, Gas and Electric Company, for allegedly polluting their water with chromium 6. Ultimately, the giant utility company settled the highly publicized case for $333 million in 1996.

If passed, the bill supported by Masry would direct the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a study to determine a tolerable level of chromium 6 in drinking water and provide federal funds for corrective action.

"I would just say that for those who say, 'Will it cost too much?,' let's quote Erin Brockovich ... 'What price tag would you put on a newborn's life?'" says Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), the bill's chief sponsor.

Last month, however, President Bush rolled back Clinton's orders that had called for reducing the arsenic level in water. So now it's unknown how vigorously any new pollution standards would be enforced. But legislators are chiming in.

"We're going to send him [Bush] the movie. We're also going to send him a couple of bottles of water. One that has [high] levels of chromium 6 in it, and one that has low levels. I think he'll make the right choice," Boxer says. Her home state of California may have many sites where chromium wastes from defense plants may have wound up in the water supply.

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