Chromium 6 contamination sources and impacts

The leather and chrome plating industry is about to get some unwanted attention again after new study from the Environmental Working Group has found carcinogenic hexavalent chromium in the tap water of 31 out of 35 US cities sampled. 

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), millions of Americans are drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, which is a substance known to cause cancer in humans and animals; along with a variety of other serious health issues. It’s a heavy metal and bioaccumulative, meaning it can build up in an organism over time.
The California EPA proposed setting a public health goal for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.06 parts per billion (ppb). In Norman, Oklahoma, the level is reportedly more than 200 times that. 
This isn’t Chromium-6’s first media spotlight – it was the subject of Erin Brockovich’s crusade in 1993.
While chromium enters the air, water and soil naturally, human industry is also a major source. Chromium’s main uses are in alloys, chrome plating, leather and wood preservation. It’s also released through the combustion of coal – it’s another reason the concept of “clean coal” is an oxymoron.
While chromium 3 is of benefit in very small doses, high amounts of Chromium 6 in animals can cause respiratory problems, immune system problems, birth defects, infertility and tumor formation.
As chrome wears, chemicals are released – for example, a chrome shower head could leach chemicals into the water spray, onto you, down the drain and into the wider environment.
Chrome plating is carried out in baths of hexavalent chromic acid. As it off-gases, it is drawn into exhaust systems and into the atmosphere – but that’s not where it stays; it comes back to earth and binds with the soil or contaminates waterways. The chroming bath itself is highly toxic waste; as are the rinsewaters.
There are alternatives to chrome already being used, such as electroless nickel; but it would seem the shift away from chrome isn’t happening fast enough. 

We can help accelerate the reduction of hexavalent chromium usage by not only making a bit of noise about the issue, but also steering clear of chrome plated products where we can and looking for leather products that haven’t been treated with chromium based solutions. I’m assuming most store salespeople wouldn’t know whether a leather item has been treated with hexavalent chromium, so you will need to ask the manufacturer. Some people would suggest the chrome problem in addition to animal welfare issues are good enough reasons to avoid leather altogether.
The issue of chromium 6 is yet another reason why reducing electricity consumption is not only good for your wallet, but also for the environment if your electricity originates from coal fired generation.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the EWG’s findings is this may re-spark the bottled water trend. However, whether bottled water is free of hexavalent chromium will depend on where it comes from. As far as I know, activated carbon water filters cannot remove chromium 6 from tap water – a reverse osmosis system is needed.
You can read more about the Environmental Working Group’s findings about Chromium 6 in drinking water here.