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[whitespace] Numbers Game: How much chromium-6 is too much?


Jekyll & Hyde

Ever since 'Erin Brockovich,' public awareness about chromium-6 has been growing, albeit fuzzily. Last week the Sentinel reported that some La Selva residents want to close area wells contaminated with chromium-6 to the tune of 31 to 38 parts per billion--about a 20th of the concentrations discovered by the indefatigable Brockovich. What's confusing right now is that while scientists have concluded that chromium-6 is carcinogenic if you inhale it, they don't know if it's a problem if you drink it at concentrations lower than 50 parts per billion.

Nüz, who recalls from long-distant chemistry lessons that chromium is named from the Greek chroma (meaning color) on account of its brightly colored compounds, sought out local chromium expert Dr. Khalil Abu-Saba (full disclosure: Abu-Saba is married to news editor Sarah Phelan) for some answers. "Chromium is a colorful Jekyll and Hyde kind of chemical," Abu-Saba confirmed, "with chromium-3 being the good, mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll-style compound, and chromium-6 being the dangerous, unstable, hexavalent Mr. Hyde."

Abu-Saba, who has written science articles about chromium, thinks it's a mistake to call groundwater tainted or contaminated "just because it contains 10 to 40 parts per billion chromium-6." Abu-Saba has measured 20 parts per billion chromium-6 in a remote mountain stream where the source was alkaline water washing over chromium-rich serpentine minerals. As he explains, "The California coast-range is lousy with chromium-bearing minerals."

According to Abu-Saba, the mild-mannered chromium-3 is naturally present in our diets. "The reason we can't predict drinking water risks based on inhalation risks," Abu-Saba explains, "is that chromium-6 quickly switches back to chromium-3 under acidic conditions, like those found in your stomach."

Abu-Saba, who works for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, suggested that in addressing the chromium problem people ask two separate questions: First, what is a safe concentration of chromium-6 in drinking water? And second, what concentration of chromium-6 do we expect to find naturally occurring in surface and groundwater?

"To give people some comfort about what they are drinking, the state will have to complete the risk assessment. To spot the real sources, we've got to understand natural background," Abu-Saba said.

Brew Crisis

With the price of a cup of joe inching ever upward, it would be easy to imagine that coffee farmers are rolling in it these days. Nothing could be further from the truth. While java company profits soar and retail prices hit new highs, coffee farmers and field hands are going hungry and broke. Of the $1.50 that coffee lovers spend on a regular cup of their favorite brew, only pennies go to the farmers who grew the beans.

UCSC student Rafael Hernandez cares about the poverty of coffee farmers, but not enough to give up his daily fix. "I just gotta have coffee," Hernandez told Nüz in front of a Peabody's Coffee stand at UCSC's Social Sciences II building. "This is the only place you can get coffee [on this part of campus], and I have to have it."

The problem, according to Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company co-owner Colleen Crosby, is that conventional farms make as little as 20 to 30 cents per pound of coffee while production costs may reach 80 cents per pound. These low prices have led to devastating poverty in many countries. To help solve the problem, fair-trade-certified coffee companies work directly with small-scale farming cooperatives to ensure that farmers earn a living wage.

According to UCSC graduate student Christopher Bacon, who studies fair-trade coffee production in Nicaragua, a more direct relationship between consumers and farmers provides a fairer price for the coffee they produce. "For fair-trade certification, the farming cooperative must get at least $1.26 per pound of coffee," Bacon said. "This minimum price assures that the farmers who own the cooperatives will receive at least $1.00 per pound."

Several businesses on campus, including the Kresge Coop, Banana Joes and the Whole Earth, offer fair trade coffee, but Peabody's, often sold at stands just outside classrooms, has not yet altered its selection.

Comercio Justo--a group of student activists whose name means fair trade in Spanish--wants to make it easier for UCSC students to make a socially responsible coffee selection. The organization has been circulating a petition demanding that Peabody's offer fair-trade coffee.

At a May 2 meeting, the UCSC Student Union Association asked if Peabody's planned to offer fair-trade coffee. Peabody manager Paul Harjehausen was unable to give a definite answer, but he did tell Nüz that Peabody's is working to meet student demand. "If they want fair-trade coffee, than that's what they'll get," he said.

According to Crosby, the world coffee crisis has been spurred by an increase in production in Vietnam, which has been selling coffee for about 20 cents per pound, thereby causing world coffee prices to plummet and poverty to increase.

Straight Story

Food and Nutrition Services sent Nüz a letter in response to allegations made by SEIU local 415 organizer Nora Hochman (see Nüz 5/9/01, "Child-Care Update"). Hochman had told Nüz that her sources indicated FNS spent $30,000 in consultant fees to study staff turnover this year. In the letter, FNS says it was more like $17,308 and went toward "consultant fees to survey staff (including child care workers) on pay, benefits and working conditions to make recommendations on changes to our wage structure."

The letter went on to state that FNS spent only $800 on logo upgrade. Hochman had claimed that FNS spent $50,000 on image marketing and a logo upgrade. According to FNS' executive director Sam Storey, whom Nüz was finally able to reach, FNS did "receive a grant from the Packards for $50,000 in the previous fiscal year, which we used to develop a five-year strategic plan." Storey says that part of the strategic plan involved changing the mission statement and the name of FNS to "Community Bridges."

When questioned about upcoming expenditures, Storey told Nüz that "this year we budgeted about $20,000 to anticipate the cost of changing our name on things like our vans and letterhead and also on publicity. It is budgeted, but we haven't spent it at this point. We have applied for grants and are pursuing additional money from Packard."

The notoriously vocal Hochman gave Nüz an unprecedented "No comment."

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From the May 30-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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