Chromium is a natural metallic element found in rocks, soil and volcanic dust. Hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, is a chemical form commonly used in the electroplating industry and not naturally occurring. It is highly hazardous, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It causes cancer, skin and eye irritations and can cause tumors, liver and kidney damage, birth defects, and respiratory problems. Inhaling dust with chromium-6 directly can be fatal.
The compound can be absorbed through skin contact, inhaled or ingested in drinking water or food. Documents describing the chemicals used at Chrome Craft plant show several products that are forms of chromium-6, including chromium trioxide, chromic acid flake and chromic acid.
Processes such as electroplating and chroming can be done safely, but require careful management to make sure waste does not contaminate the environment.
Hexavalent chromium’s effects were brought to the public’s attention in the 2000 Julia Roberts movie “Erin Brockovich,” based on the true story of an investigator for a law firm who discovered dozens of cases of ailments in Hinckley, Calif., residents exposed to unlined ponds filled with the chemical. Those ponds leaked into drinking water.
The EPA is considering tighter standards for chromium in drinking water and air emissions.