Health Effects of Hexavalent Chromium
Hexavalent chromium is a toxic form of the element chromium. Hexavalent
chromium compounds are man-made and widely used in many different industries.
Some major industrial sources of hexavalent Breathing small amounts of hexavalent chromium
chromium are: even for long periods does not cause respiratory
• chromate pigments in dyes, paints, inks, and tract irritation in most people.
• chromates added as anti-corrosive agents to Some employees become allergic to hexavalent
paints, primers and other surface coatings chromium so that inhaling chromate compounds
• chrome plating by depositing chromium metal can cause asthma symptoms such as wheezing
onto an item’s surface using a solution of and shortness of breath.
• particles released during smelting of ferro- How hexavalent chromium affects the skin
chromium ore Some employees can also develop an allergic
• fume from welding stainless steel or nonfer- skin reaction, called allergic contact dermatitis.
rous chromium alloys This occurs from handling liquids or solids con-
• impurity present in portland cement. taining hexavalent chromium. Once an employee
becomes allergic, brief skin contact causes
How hexavalent chromium can harm employees swelling and a red, itchy rash that becomes crusty
Workplace exposure to hexavalent chromium and thickened with prolonged exposure. Allergic
may cause the following health effects: contact dermatitis is long-lasting and more severe
• lung cancer in workers who breathe airborne with repeated skin contact.
• irritation or damage to the nose, throat, and Direct skin contact with hexavalent chromium
lung (respiratory tract) if hexavalent chromium can cause a non-allergic skin irritation. Contact
is breathed at high levels with non-intact skin can also lead to chrome
• irritation or damage to the eyes and skin if ulcers. These are small crusted skin sores with
hexavalent chromium contacts these organs in a rounded border. They heal slowly and leave
high concentrations. scars.
How hexavalent chromium affects the nose, How employees can be exposed to
throat and lungs hexavalent chromium
Breathing in high levels of hexavalent chromium Employees can inhale airborne hexavalent
can cause irritation to the nose and throat. chromium as a dust, fume or mist while:
Symptoms may include runny nose, sneezing, • producing chromate pigments and powders;
coughing, itching and a burning sensation. chromic acid; chromium catalysts, dyes, and
Repeated or prolonged exposure can cause sores • working near chrome electoplating
to develop in the nose and result in nosebleeds. If • welding and hotworking stainless steel, high
the damage is severe, the nasal septum (wall sep- chrome alloys and chrome-coated metal
arating the nasal passages) develops a hole in it • applying and removing chromate-containing
(perforation). paints and other surface coatings.
Skin exposure can occur during direct handling hazard present from skin or eye contact.
of hexavalent chromium-containing solutions, • implement good personal hygiene and house-
coatings, and cements. keeping practices to prevent hexavalent
Steps OSHA has taken to protect • prohibit employee rotation as a method to
employees from health hazards caused achieve compliance with the exposure limit
by hexavalent chromium (PEL).
The new OSHA workplace standard requires • provide respiratory protection as specified in
employers to: the standard.
• limit eight-hour time-weighted average hexa- • make available medical examinations to
valent chromium exposure in the workplace to employees within 30 days of initial assign-
5 micrograms or less per cubic meter of air. ment, annually, to those exposed in an emer-
• perform periodic monitoring at least every 6 gency situation, to those who experience signs
months if initial monitoring shows employee or symptoms of adverse health effects associ-
exposure at or above the action level (2.5 ated with hexavalent chromium exposure, to
micrograms per cubic meter of air calculated those who are or may be exposed at or above
as an 8-hour time-weighted average). the action level for 30 or more days a year, and
• provide appropriate personal protective cloth- at termination of employment.
ing and equipment when there is likely to be a
For more complete information:
U.S. Department of Labor