In 1996, the little town of Hinkley, California, won a massive arbitration against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). You might recall the story as the basis for the movie “Erin Brockovich,” in which a single mother and small-town attorney went up against a utility company that had been dumping hexavalent chromium into an unlined pond.1
At the time of the settlement, the case was the largest payout ever awarded for a direct-action lawsuit and environmental advocates were excited about the possibilities. Unfortunately, Hinkley has become a ghost town and hexavalent chromium has continued to contaminate water supplies across the U.S.
Back in Hinckley, a resident found levels of hexavalent chromium had recently increased in her water supply. Upon investigation, she discovered the plume had grown over the last 15 years, stretching miles from the original contamination site. In 2014, a feasibility study from PG&E found eliminating the chromium from the hardest hit areas may take up to 50 years.2
In the meantime, town properties have been classified as uninsurable wasteland. Hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, is a carcinogen.3,4 While Hinkley struggles with contamination of their water supply, researchers have found varying levels of chromium-6 in the water sources of more than 250 million Americans.5
Although there are current water regulations for total chromium level exposure, despite a well-publicized lawsuit and full knowledge of the devastation caused by chromium-6, there are not yet permissible exposure limits for this carcinogen.6
In a study undertaken by researchers at Olivet Nazarene University, data demonstrated antioxidants, such as vitamin C, may help reduce the effects of hexavalent chromium commonly found in drinking water.7,8
Vitamin C and tea may mitigate water pollution
The research paper was presented at the Experimental Biology 2019 conference9 held in Orlando, Florida. The thesis paper was supervised by Ryan Himes, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Life and Health Sciences at Olivet University.
The allowable concentration of hexavalent chromium in drinking water is currently under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study was designed to determine how antioxidants might prevent cell toxicity when two types of human cells were exposed to different concentrations of chromium-6.10
Chromium-6 is a known powerful oxidizing agent, although the specific mechanism through which it causes cancer has not yet been determined.11 There has been no known preventive treatment for exposure. Researchers tested the hypothesis chromium-6 cytotoxicity might be prevented using antioxidants.12
They exposed human embryonic kidney and human intestinal epithelial cells, finding chromium-6 was significantly toxic in cell culture at concentrations of 200 parts per billion (ppb) and higher.13 The researchers found toxicity was blocked by vitamin C at 10 parts per million (ppm) or the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), the primary antioxidant in green tea, at 15 ppm.
The researchers found the cytotoxic effect was blocked by vitamin C or EGCG alone. They then exposed bacteria to 20 ppb or more of chromium-6 and observed DNA mutations. However, when the bacteria were also treated with 20 ppm of vitamin C, the cytotoxic effect was again blocked.
Water pollution affects millions in the US
In 2010, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)14 published an executive summary showing at least 74 million U.S. citizens in 42 states were drinking tap water contaminated with chromium, much of it likely in the form of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.
By 2016 the number had jumped to 200 million15 and, according to researchers at Olivet Nazarene, 250 million Americans are currently drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium.16 In 1972, the U.S. Clean Water Act17 was supposed to ensure clean water for swimming, fishing and drinking. Unfortunately, after nearly five decades of regulation, waterways are in serious jeopardy.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 2 billion people worldwide do not have safe drinking water.18 Forced to drink contaminated water, hundreds of thousands die from preventable diseases.
U.S. drinking water is contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, antibacterial products and medications.19 In one ambitious project,20 researchers gathered samples from the Hudson River to measure levels of pharmaceutical pollution.21
Past testing had detected antidepressants, blood pressure medications, decongestants and other drugs. Unlike the volumes of information available on the effect of pathogens, the science on long-term exposure to slight amounts of a chemical soup mixture of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals is still in its infancy.
Where is the chromium?
Keeping the public in the dark is not new. A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry showed widespread water contamination near military bases, chemical plants and elsewhere. They warned these chemicals could harm health at levels significantly lower than those deemed safe by the EPA.22
According to Politico,23 which obtained internal EPA emails, the report had been kept from the public for months to prevent a “potential public relations nightmare.” Although hexavalent chromium occurs naturally in the environment, high amounts are produced through industry.
Even in small amounts, it may trigger skin burns, pneumonia and complications during childbirth. You may search your county for chromium-6 testing using the EWG interactive map.24 During their evaluation, EWG found Oklahoma, Arizona and California have the highest averages; Phoenix has the highest level of any city.
Past EPA assistant administrator of toxic substances, Dr. Lynn Goldman, told PBS,25 “There should be no carcinogen in water. The overall problem here is, what does it take for EPA to speed up its standard-setting process?”
In a press release from the EWG announcing their interactive map, they stated two-thirds of American water supplies have levels above what scientists say are safe for hexavalent chromium. Of the more than 60,000 water samples collected between 2013 and 2015, more than 75% contained hexavalent chromium. Consumer advocate Brockovich commented on the results:26
“Houston, we have a problem. More than 20 years ago, we learned that this dangerous chemical poisoned the tap water of California communities, and now these tests and EWG’s report show that roughly 218 million Americans are being served drinking water polluted with potentially dangerous levels of this known carcinogen.
But in that time the EPA hasn't set drinking water standards for any previously unregulated contaminant, and there are disturbing signs the agency may again do nothing about chromium-6. This is an abject failure by the EPA, including members of Congress charged with overseeing the agency, and every American should be outraged by this inaction.”
Vitamin C may also reduce the effects of air pollution
Vitamin C is a water-soluble micronutrient humans do not have the ability to synthesize and must get from their diet.27 It is an essential cofactor in a number of enzymatic reactions and there is some evidence to suggest it may be useful as an adjunct to conventional medical practices to reduce heart injury and arrhythmia after a cardiac procedure.28
Oregon University29 reports no evidence that large amounts, up to 10 grams per day in adults, will have any toxic effect. However, 2 grams per day and greater may trigger diarrhea or gastrointestinal disturbances in some adults. The usefulness of vitamin C is related to its ability to donate electrons and reduce oxidative stress.30
In this manner it contributes to your immune system, supporting various cellular functions and epithelial barrier function against pathogens. While a gross deficiency results in scurvy, functional deficiency will impair the immune system31 and leave you susceptible to infection.
In addition to helping protect cells against water pollution as demonstrated in the featured study on hexavalent chromium,32 vitamin C may also help to mitigate oxidative stress response to air pollutants. There is substantial evidence particulate matter air pollution increases oxidative stress and those with higher dietary intake of specific vitamins may experience a lower negative response.33
The WHO34 places air pollution as one of the world's largest environmental health risk factors. In one meta-analysis,35 the review found evidence for vitamin supplementation in reducing the effects of pollution on asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases, including supplementation with carotenoids, vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids.
More benefits from antioxidants in tea
The featured study also found EGCG, an antioxidant found in green tea, was effective against the cytotoxic effects of chromium-6. Green tea has been prized for generations in China, Japan and Britain. It has also made a name for itself in the U.S., where many drink it daily to enjoy the many health benefits attributed to EGCG.
Studies have found EGCG increases fat oxidation36 and may help prevent obesity.37 It may also improve exercise performance38 and lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.39 However, not all green teas are created equal.
If you drink it, you probably assume you're getting the same dose with each cup, but an analysis of strength and purity of 105 products found the levels varied widely from product to product.40 It is important to seek out high quality green tea to enjoy some of the additional health benefits.
These benefits include inhibiting bacterial and viral growth,41 protecting against oxidation in the brain and liver,42 improving mental alertness43 and reducing blood pressure.44 The type of tea you purchase may make a difference in the amount of beneficial antioxidants and flavor.
There's also an art to brewing tea using loose leaves that brings out full flavor and reduces your exposure to unwanted additives, which I discuss in my previous article, “What's in your green tea?”
Vitamin C potent adjunct to cancer treatment
Vitamin C has also been shown to be selectively cytotoxic to cancer cells when administered intravenously or in liposomal form in high doses. The presence of vitamin C generates hydrogen peroxide, which is ultimately what kills the cancer cells.45
Normal tissue is unharmed46 by high levels of hydrogen peroxide as they have several ways of removing it before it builds to toxic levels.47 High doses of vitamin C administration in combination with chemotherapy and radiation may also significantly improve the effectiveness of these treatments.48
Cancer cells have unstable iron particles, also known as redox active iron molecules, making them more vulnerable to oxidative damage triggered by high dose vitamin C. Hydrogen peroxide is generated when the redox active iron reacts with the vitamin C, subsequently damaging the cancer cells’ DNA and making them more vulnerable to chemotherapy and radiation.49
Administration of vitamin C also helps those suffering from cancer by lowering levels of inflammation, a hallmark of cancer. Vitamin C appears to slow the growth of liver and lymphoma cancers in animal studies.50