A study released in December by the Environmental Working Group found that Chromium-6, colloquially known as "The Erin Brockovich Compound," is far more prevalent in tap water than was previously known. Unsafe levels of the cancer-causing compound were found in 31 of the 35 American cities tested.
Boise is not on that list. But if you look at the map of chromium levels across the U.S., southwest Idaho, especially Canyon County, looks suspiciously like some of the worst effected areas of the nation.
What the map shows are the total levels of chromium, as reported by government mandated testing. No testing to differentiate levels of Chromium 3 (a benign substance) from Chromium 6, a carcinogen is required. The EWG's study was the first wide-spread attempt to assess the threat. And since Boise wasn't tested, no one actually knows what the speciation would reveal. Only that there's plenty of total chromium locally.
The study was shocking enough that the EPA issued a statement addressing it two days later.
"EPA has already been working to review and incorporate the ground-breaking science referenced in this report," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "However, as a mother and the head of EPA, I am still concerned about the prevalence of chromium-6 in our drinking water."
But that doesn't mean anybody should panic. All parties involved, the EPA, the EWG, the local Department of Environmental Quality and even the Idaho Conservation League, say that this study is only a snapshot, and that without further more widespread testing there isn't enough information to take a firm stance.
But that's certainly information they'd all like to see.
"What this study really underscores is the need to go out and get good information," says Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League. He compared to Idaho's situation with arsenic, in which consistent under-testing allowed unsafe levels to exist in drinking water for years.
"There's a lot of political pressure not to test or to keep the standards the same," says Hawkins. "It's a political hot potato because they've been on the books for so long."
"Idaho simply adopts the federal standards," says Jerri Henry, a drinking water analyst at the Idaho DEQ. "Most states do."
Henry says that safe levels and testing requirements are reevaluated at the federal level every six years and that the state relies on that process to determine big public health issues.
The EPA apparently isn't waiting. Part of Administrator Jackson's address included announcement of plans for new series of resources and assistance in testing and a new round of risk assessment for toxic compounds, all of which she'd discussed thoroughly with key members of the Senate.
"We're expecting new plans from the top anytime," says Henry.
Those plans are likely to include anything from money to new requirements. Henry says that to truly determine risk a study would need far more testing sites over a longer timeline, and that all that cost adds up quickly.
Leeanne Brown, Press Secretary for the EWG quoted the cost of the study at $100 overall, but a local water testing lab put it at $100 a sample.
"It [the EWG study] seemed hasty," says Henry. "But anything that bring drinking water to the forefront and gets people thinking about it is a good thing. It's something we all take for granted."