Of Mice and Culligan Men

The relationship between the EWG hex chrome water study and a Culligan PR campaign raises some questions


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 The press release from Culligan touting its chromium-reducing water filtration system was sent a few days after national media outlets played up a study on the dangers of the nation’s drinking water.

“Concerns about the quality of drinking water continue to make headlines,” wrote Eric Rosenthal, Culligan’s Senior VP of marketing. “If residents are looking for an extra level of protection, having a reverse osmosis drinking water system can provide it.”
Some would call it great timing that Culligan was pushing its Aqua-Cleer system—that purports to reduce hexavalent chromium by up to 97.7% and trivalent chromium by up to 99%—just days after the Environmental Working Group sent out its study on chromium levels in 35 city water systems.
The EWG claimed that chromium caused cancer in lab mice, although it has never been shown to be carcinogenic to humans when dissolved in drinking water. Researchers say that the only link with hex chrome and cancer was cases when workers who inhaled it in large quantities over many years.
Mice aside, we became curious when we learned that the lab that conducted the testing for EWG is owned by the same company that owns Culligan—private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier, and Rice (CD&R; New York, NY). Some have pointed out that relationship is too close for comfort, including George Hanson, general manager of the Chesapeake Water Association (Lusby, MD).
“Others on the CD&R Board serve on boards of corporations that allegedly have financial interest in technologies that would be directly applicable to a demand for the removal of hexavalent chromium at the levels being recommended,” says Hanson.
If you scoff at Hanson’s assertions that maybe someone at CD&R and Culligan had a financial interest in seeing disturbing headlines on public drinking water, then dig a little deeper into where CD&R bought Culligan back in 2003.
Culligan was owned by Vivendi, a French conglomerate that also owned several major water filtration companies in the U.S. and abroad that targeted municipal water districts as customers.
Big business to say the least.
Vivendi also had a hand in the entertainment business, even owning part of the NBC television network. One of the movies Vivendi released was “Erin Brockovich,” the film about a would-be legal assistant going up against a big company in a hex chrome case.
Hanson says that the movie “propagandized the fear of hexavalent chromium. That fear had gone nearly dormant until EWG decided to publish its current report.”
Many other municipal water districts say the EWG and Exova study are questionable, that they used faulty testing standards and shoddy record keeping. The cities say EWG is now refusing to share any of their data so that they can discover what may have caused the levels of chromium, if the actual numbers are to believed at all.
“EWG has declined to provide to the City of Tallahassee the laboratory analyses raw data sheets that form the basis for its report,” says William Leseman, a water quality consultant hired by the city to study its drinking water after the December report.
“The EWG claim of sampler privacy is unheard of in the environmental research field,” says Leseman.
But back to Culligan, which has used the results of “studies” on drinking water before. Take the Gallup poll done in May 2010 about what Americans think about their drinking water.
“The results of a nationwide Gallup poll revealed that Americans expressed greater concern about threats to water safety,” Culligan wrote in a press release last year.
But here’s what the Gallup poll actually says: “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.” In fact, the percentage concerned about their drinking water dropped by almost 15% from 2009 to 2010. Since 1990, the concern has dropped more than 30%.
We don’t fully know the relationship Culligan or Exova have with the EWG study, but we do know that there is a financial connection between the EWG and Culligan: After reading the water study report on EWG website (and we recommend you don’t waste your time), you can click on a button and buy a Culligan water filter if you want … and a portion of the proceeds of the Culligan sale goes back to EWG.
The metal finishing industry has taken its share of hits from environmental groups and agencies over the last few decade, some of it fair game. But the EWG report will call into question any further studies as we examine the motive and interests of those involved.