If you have heard of the movie “Erin Brockovich,” it is a great story about the dangerous health effects caused by hexavalent chromium exposure to the public in the small town of Hinkley, California and the lawsuit that followed.
The movie is based on a real town in the United States, a person named Erin Brockovich, and their struggles with high incidence of cancers after a company illegally dumped chromium 6 waste into the ground water.
Even if you missed the movie and news about this story, you should be concerned about possible health problems since the risk of chromium exposure and the dangerous effects are very real and topics about industrial pollution affect us all.
Read on to learn more about these chromium chemicals, the different forms, how they are used, as well as the health risks involved, not only to humans, but also to plants and animals.
Table of Contents
- What is Hexavalent Chromium?
- What are the Uses of Hexavalent Chromium?
- Is Hexavalent Chromium Dangerous?
- How is Water Exposed to Hexavalent Chromium?
- How to Reduce Exposure to Hexavalent Chromium?
- How Remove Hexavalent Chromium from Water
What is Hexavalent Chromium?
Chromium is a natural metal in the periodic table with a symbol Cr and atomic number of 24.
As a metal, it has attributes of being resistant to tarnishing while capable of high-quality polish.
It can reflect around 70% of visible lights and even 90% of infrared lights.
Hexavalent chromium (CR) is a chromium that has +6 valence states known as Chromium 6.
It is a chemical usually produced by industrial processes from the element chromium.
What are the Uses of Hexavalent Chromium?
Hexavalent chromium is popular in several industries because of its unique properties.
Some of its major applications are:
- chromate painting
Electroplating is the process of coating a metal with another metal. In particular, it is done through an electro-deposition process.
This allows the metal coating to become part of the main metal material.
Hexavalent chromium compounds are among the popular coating materials used in production.
While the popular chrome coating used on cars and motorcycles can use either hexavalent chromium or trivalent chromium, tri-chrome plating is now the standard, since it is not toxic.
Welding is a fabrication process of fusing two or more parts of materials like metal or thermoplastics through heating or/and pressure.
Hexavalent chromium compounds are not directly used in welding, but they are present in stainless steels that are popular as a welding material.
Chromate painting is an industrial painting process that uses zinc chromate paint.
This paint is usually applied to coat aluminum and iron surfaces.
It is very effective in making the material rust and corrosive resistant.
Chromate painting should not be confused with chrome plating.
Is Hexavalent Chromium Dangerous?
Hexavalent chromium compounds are considered toxic to people, animals, and to the environment according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other safety organizations.
Chromium 6 compounds are considered carcinogens.
In the past few decades there has been an alarming increase in the number of people who have developed cancer as a result of exposure to hexavalent chromium at work or home.
In addition to causing lung cancer, they are harmful to your eyes, skin, and the respiratory system.
Health Effects of Exposure to Hexavalent Chromium
Occupational exposure to hexavalent chromium in various industries and environmental pollution are the most common ways to encounter this chemical.
Various exposures can lead to a range of health effects:
- Eye irritation
- Nose irritation
- Skin irritation
- Respiratory irritation
- Upper abdominal pain
- Teeth discoloration
- Eye damage
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Nose damage
- Perforated eardrum
- Teeth erosion
- Allergic contact dermatitis
- Chrome ulcer
- Respiratory cancer
Is Chromium 6 in Drinking Water Dangerous?
Chromium 6 is toxic to human health when present in the air, food, or drinking water.
There should be very little to no hexavalent chromium compounds found in drinking water and any sort of exposures can lead to negative health effects.
Drinking Water Regulations for Chromium
According to the drinking water standard released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States, the presence of hexavalent chromium compounds in drinking water must be less than 0.1 mg/L or 100 parts per billion.
Any more than that is not safe for drinking.
The Environmental Protection Agency passed the third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Regulation or UCMR 3 that requires most public water suppliers to monitor chromium 6 for a one-year period.
How is Water Exposed to Hexavalent Chromium?
Hexavalent chromium gets into water either by accident or through illegal contamination at a site.
Erosion of Natural Chromium Deposits
Chromium 6 or Cr VI occurs naturally in the environment and can contaminate the soil and water through erosion.
If Cr VI is leaked out from an industrial plant or from damaged storage containing Chromium 6, it can introduce high concentrations of contaminants into soil and groundwater.
Inadequate Industrial Waste Disposal System
If wastewater exposed to hexavalent chromium is released into drainage or water systems during production, it will eventually contaminate tap water.
Leaching from Hazardous Waste Sites
Hazardous waste sites often have chromium metal exposure, according to the EPA.
Discharges of Chromium Hexavalent Compounds
Products and materials like dye, paint pigments, and wood preservatives can contain hexavalent chromium compounds.
The government discourages people from throwing chrome-containing products such as tanning products, surface coatings, vegetable tanning products, wood preservation products, and stainless steel or metals away with regular garbage because of the health risks they pose to the people.
How to Reduce Exposure to Hexavalent Chromium?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fact sheets, various industries including tanneries, stainless steel factories, spray paints, pigments, and other products using Cr VI compounds must follow strict standards to minimize the risk of workplace exposures from inhalation of Cr VI fumes.
Here are some of the important topics mentioned by the OSHA standards to ensure worker exposure limits during manufacturing processes.
- Inhalation of Cr VI chemicals must be less than 5 micrograms in the air to avoid lung cancer.
- If workers show signs of having chemical exposure above the exposure limits, OSHA standards require periodic monitoring of the workers for 6 months.
- Workers must be provided with personal protective clothing and equipment (PPE) approved by OSHA to prevent high levels of exposure to chemicals in the eyes and skin.
- Personal hygiene and housekeeping practices must be of high standards as recommended by NIEHS and EPA to protect people’s health from cancer.
- Respiratory protection is required by OSHA to increase the level of health safety for workers dealing with Cr VI chemicals.
- To protect the health of the workers, medical examinations must be conducted to check for signs of cancer related to the chrome compounds.
- OSHA requires workers dealing with Cr VI chemicals (such as those working in stainless steel manufacturing) to follow employee rotation as part of the health safety standards.
How Remove Hexavalent Chromium from Water
It is important to test your water source at a licensed testing laboratory to check for chromium compounds that may threaten your safety.
If groundwater samples show that hexavalent chromium compounds surpass the maximum contaminant level (MCL) allowed by the EPA, it is time to consider installing the right water filtration system.
Water Treatment Systems
There are a few systems endorsed by the Water Quality Association (WQA), NIEHS, and EPA to effectively remove hexavalent chromium from contaminated ground water:
- Reverse osmosis – either point-of-entry (whole house) or point-of-use (undersink)
- Anion resin – which is common in whole house water treatment system
- Distillation – which is effective but only for small batches of water
Dangerous levels of toxic chemicals like hexavalent chromium in drinking water is one of many topics that is important to consider for your health.
If samples of your water supply show ANY level of these carcinogens, you should take action.
Installing an approved water filtration method in your home will ensure that your family, pets, and plants are safe from both short and long-term effects of exposure to this and many other contaminants.
Take the necessary steps now to protect your health!