San Jose Water Safe to Drink, Despite Study

By Scott McGrew
|  Wednesday, Dec 22, 2010  |  Updated 10:30 AM PDT
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San Jose Water Safe to Drink, Despite Study

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A recent report by an environmental watchdog says San Jose has a very high amount of a potentially dangerous chemical in its municipal water supply.  While the report is alarming, even the Environmental Working Group -- which authored the study  -- says the water in the South Bay is safe enough for your children to drink.

"I don't really like to say we're 'worried,' " says Oakland based scientist Rebecca Sutton, who authored the study for Environmental Working Group. "What we're concerned about is exposure throughout life." 

In fact, Dr. Sutton said she was a bit surprised at the anxiety her report caused. "I had one lady call me concerned that she filtered water at home but she was anxious she would not be able to have water at a restaurant.  I told her that she didn't need to worry that much."

Many citizens don't realize it, but there are three different water companies serving residents in the city of San Jose, including one run by the city and two private entities.

NBC Bay Area contacted all three for their reaction to the study. 

The San Jose Municipal Water system, owned by the city, says it's mystified.

"We're trying to find out what water they tested in San Jose.  We're not clear where they took the sample. It's not in the report itself," said Manosour Nasser, deputy director of environmental service for San Jose. "We haven't found [hexavalent chromium] in ANY city owned supply. I have an eight-year-old. The water is perfectly safe to drink."

San Jose Water Company, a private company, serves the most customers in San Jose -- about 79% of residents.  Its environmental scientists have also examined the report and are perplexed.

"The water is safe to drink" says John Tang.  As for where the sample came from, Tang said, "I contacted the Environmental Working Group and they did not share that data." 

Scientist Sutton of EWG tells NBC Bay Area the San Jose sample came from a water fountain at a branch of the San Jose Public Library served by the San Jose Water Company.

San Jose Water Company says it tests shows chromium levels far below current EPA standards. 

Neither the federal government nor the state set limits for levels of hexavalant chromium specifically.  California requires testing but has only proposed setting limits. 

Currently the state's limits apply only to all levels of chromium, both the unhealthy (hexavalent) and the healthy (trivalent).

Inhaling hexavalent chromium - an industrial byproduct which can also found naturally underground - can cause cancer.  It's not clear if drinking it is dangerous, though scientists suspect it is.  The EPA labels the compound as a "probable carcinogen".  Trivalent chromium is considered generally harmless, and in fact is sometimes used a dietary supplement amongst diabetes patients.

"Obviously, if you're below the total for all chromium", says Tang, "you're by definition below the level of the dangerous stuff."

Great Oaks Water Company posts the results of all its tests right on its website, greatoakswater.com.  Its most recent tests show total chromium (hexavalent and trivalent) at levels 200 times lower than standards.

Environmental Working Group scientists have recommended reverse osmosis water filters for San Jose residents following its study.  "Those are thousands of dollars" says Municipal Water deputy director Tang, disagreeing.  "I don't know why anyone would do that."

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