The Flint water crisis has been one of the most publicized water contamination disasters in several decades. Concerns have surfaced, however, regarding water purity and safety in other parts of the country. In the Coachella Valley, there is apprehension over hazardous chemicals that include chromium-6.
Chromium-6 is the carcinogenic agent that was cause for the famous Erin Brockovich case in 1996 which was portrayed in pop culture through a movie starring Julia Roberts.
In 2014, water agencies in California stated that they believed the chromium-6 chemical was seeping from rock into the groundwater. Other sources include manufacturing and processing plants, dye and paint industries, leather tanning industries, and wood preservatives. The California Department of Health set a level of 10 parts per billion for this chemical, and an astounding 36 of 96 water wells locally surpassed that limit.
Safety concerns with regard to exposure include contact with skin and ingestion, as well as inhalation. Chromium concentrations can be measured via blood and urine to monitor levels in people at risk, including residential exposure and occupational exposure. While inhalation poses a risk for lung cancer, ingestion can cause cancer, reproductive issues with congenital disorders, neuropsychiatric disorders, neurodegenerative disorders, atherosclerosis, kidney damage, and liver damage. Contact with skin can lead to dermatitis and skin irritation.
Will this problem be solved? Unlike the outpouring of media attention and celebrities rushing to help Flint, Michigan, there has been a quiet, slow movement to find a solution to the crisis in the Coachella Valley. In January 2015, the Coachella Valley Water District continued to contemplate the issue and estimated that construction of treatment plants would cost around $100 million, plus another $15.5 million to design these water treatment plants. Estimates also indicated this could raise the average household water bill about $30-$50 over these years.
Water is an integral part of the daily lives of nearly 350,000 residents in the Coachella Valley. My concern as a doctor is how the hazardous chemicals could affect the various organ systems of these individuals. It is not common to have the specific water supply to a house tested or to seek lab work on an individual to test for chromium concentration within the body. Therefore, long-term consequences are difficult to link directly to the contaminated water supply, and it would be difficult to know whether each person is actively being affected. For this reason, residents will have to rely upon the Coachella Valley Water District and governing officials to resolve the issue; plans to develop treatment plants and to adhere to the state guidelines are currently underway.
Dr. Fiani is a neurosurgery resident with Desert Regional Medical Center’s Graduate Medical Education Program. He is a graduate of Michigan State University’s medical school.