FRESNO, Calif. — Environmental groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the California Department of Public Health for failing to establish a safe drinking-water standard for the cancer-causing chemical made famous in the film ‘‘Erin Brockovich.’’
The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group claim the department is eight years late in setting the standard for hexavalent chromium and has made no progress toward the goal. The lawsuit seeks a court order setting a faster timeline.
Studies show that hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, can cause cancer in people and has been found to damage the gastrointestinal tract, lymph nodes, and liver of animals.
The chemical comes chiefly from industrial pollution — it is used for production of stainless steel, textile dyes, wood preservation, leather tanning, and as an anticorrosive — but also occurs naturally.
The dangers of chromium-6 became widely known after the film ‘‘Erin Brockovich’’ exposed the case of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. The utility was accused of leaking the contaminant into the ground water of Hinckley, a small desert town, causing health problems including cancer. A year later in 2001, the California Legislature directed public health agencies to set an enforceable drinking-water standard for the chemical by 2004.
The process was delayed due to a scientific dispute over whether chromium-6 is carcinogenic when ingested in water, said Sam Delson, deputy director for external and legislative affairs at the California Environmental Protection Agency. It has long been established that chromium-6 is carcinogenic when inhaled.
Federal scientists at the National Toxicology Program confirmed in 2007 that it is also carcinogenic when ingested.