Smarter Living: Chemical Index
Hexavalent chromium (a.k.a. hex chrome or chromium-6) is a metal used in a number of industrial processes including chrome plating, steel production, paint and cement making. People are exposed to hex chrome, a potent human carcinogen, by breathing contaminated air and, as in the case made famous by Erin Brockovich, drinking contaminated tap water.
Inhaling hexavalent chromium over an extended period of time causes lung and nasal cancers. It also irritates the airways, causes nasal and skin ulcerations and lesions, perforation of the nasal septum, asthma, dermatitis and other allergic reactions.
Ingesting hexavalent chromium causes stomach and intestinal damage and can lead to cancer.
In lab animals, hexavalent chromium damages sperm and male reproductive systems, and in some cases, has damaged the developing fetus.
Hexavalent chromium is a metal used in industrial processes such as chrome plating (which puts a shiny, anti-corrosive finish on wheels or plumbing fixtures, for example), steel production, metal working, tanning, paint and pigment manufacturing, glassmaking and cement manufacturing. Until recently, chromium compounds, including hex chrome, were widely used as a wood preservative in pressure-treated wood.
People can be exposed to hexavalent chromium by breathing contaminated air in or around the workplace or hazardous waste sites, ingesting or inhaling contaminated soils or drinking contaminated tap water (as in the case made famous by Erin Brockovich). In monitoring conducted by the California Department of Public Health, nearly 40 percent of drinking water sources tested in California contained unsafe levels of hex chrome.
If you work in metal plating or another industry that uses chromium, be sure to use necessary safety precautions, such as a properly fitted respirator.
Avoid hazardous waste sites--children should not play in these areas. If you live near a contaminated waste site (use the EPA’s My Environment tool to find out), try to minimize the amount of outside dust and soil that comes into the house. Make sure children wash their hands before eating, and remove their shoes and play clothes before coming inside.
Find out if your water is safe. Review your water provider’s Consumer Confidence Report, or if you have your own well, get it tested.
Hexavalent chromium is a dangerous chemical that can and should be replaced with safer alternatives. These will be more quickly developed and adopted if:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revises its workplace standards to protect the health of people who work with hexavalent chromium.
- Tougher controls are put on industrial emissions, such as cement manufacturing facilities and chrome plating operations.
- The EPA moves faster to clean up the thousands of former industrial sites contaminated with hexavalent chromium and hold polluters responsible for their actions.
- The federal government develops a standard for hexavalent chromium in drinking water. California is developing its own standard which could be a model for the country.
You can help by urging your legislators to support TSCA reforms.
Draft Toxicological Profile for Chromium. ATSDR. 2008.
Chromium-6 in drinking water: MCL update. UCalifornia Dept of Public Health. Updated August, 2009.
See NRDC's factsheet on hexavalent chromium.
last revised 12/27/2011