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What to Know About Chromium Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 06, 2022

Hexavalent chromium is a dangerous compound known to cause cancer in cases of long-term exposure. If you’re an Iraq veteran and you remember guarding a water treatment facility in 2003, you may need to check with a doctor. Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is Chromium?

Chromium is a naturally-occurring metallic element used in stainless steel production and textile manufacturing, among other industries. It can be found in rocks, animals, soil, and even volcanic dust and is a known cause of cancer.

Specifically, hexavalent chromium is a form of this element that targets the respiratory system, along with causing damage to the skin and eyes. Workers are often exposed to hexavalent chromium when welding and spray painting. 

Usually, exposure happens through breathing it in, but it can also occur through ingestion. Dermal exposure may also occur, meaning that you can be vulnerable to chromium through your skin. 

Hexavalent chromium came to be in the spotlight when it was found in Californian groundwater. After also being found in other states, different health services came together to study the effects of chromium and its toxicity. While chromium in groundwater has since been reduced, it can still be found in many workplaces.

What Is the Impact of Chromium Exposure on Your Health?

Exposure to hexavalent chromium can be very harmful to your body, as it can cause cancer, asthma, and other long-term conditions. Similarly, it can also cause some short-term symptoms such as irritation and rashes.

You can expect anything from nasal itching and soreness to perforated eardrums in the short term. Nose bleeding, skin irritation, and conjunctivitis are also common during short-term exposure. These symptoms can happen within less than a month of exposure to hexavalent chromium. 

The more severe conditions appear when the exposure to hexavalent chromium goes on for over a year. This kind of contact with chromium can cause asthma, dermatitis, and even skin ulcers. It may also damage the teeth, causing discoloration and erosion.

Other conditions caused by long-term chromium exposure include:

The primary concern with long-term hexavalent chromium exposure, however, is cancer. Specifically, chromium can cause nasal and sinus cancer, along with lung, bronchus, and trachea cancer. While research in a controlled environment is limited, experts point out that there’s a significant link between chromium exposure and these conditions.

It’s unclear what’s considered long-term exposure when it comes to chromium-caused cancer, yet anything more than 90 days could be enough. Also, it’s worth mentioning that nonrespiratory cancers are not linked directly to chromium exposure. 

Have Iraq War Veterans Been Exposed to Chromium?

If you’re an Iraq veteran, there’s a small chance that you may have been exposed to hexavalent chromium. During the spring and summer of 2003, the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility in Iraq was guarded by around 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

This facility was contaminated with sodium dichromate — a compound used in metal treatments and preserving wood, among other things. When heated, sodium dichromate emits chromium fumes, meaning that anyone present at the facility could've been exposed to it.

When specialists found out about the presence of sodium dichromate, they ordered the facility to be cleaned thoroughly. Furthermore, it was also covered in asphalt in September of that year to avoid further chromium emissions. Yet, the veterans present at Qarmat Ali before that could’ve been exposed to high levels of hexavalent chromium.

If you only drove supplies to and from the facility, you don’t have to worry about exposure, as you weren’t in contact for long enough. However, if you were posted at Qarmat Ali before September 2003, it might be time to check with a doctor.

Can Chromium Exposure Be Treated?

Sadly, there’s no known antidote available for hexavalent chromium poisoning. Instead, doctors opt for symptomatic treatment, aiming to alleviate pain and discomfort. The time it’ll take for you to recover will depend almost entirely on your level of exposure. 

In cases of contact with low doses of chromium, the first step is to completely remove the person from further exposure. This will quickly stop the advancing of symptoms such as dermatitis and renal injury, as the body will naturally dispose of excess chromium.

In more serious, long-term exposure cases, doctors may need to consider supportive measures such as cardiovascular and ventilatory support. Most symptoms, such as ulcers, will also eventually heal on their own. However, the risk of cancer will still be there, so it’s crucial to ask your doctor for relevant information.

Still, keep in mind that the time spent at Qarmat Ali and its chromium levels aren’t enough to warrant such treatments. In fact, authorities have said that they don’t expect to find serious chromium poisoning cases related to Qarmat Ali — but it’s still a good idea to check. 

What Do I Do if I Was Posted at Qarmat Ali?

If you were among those 1,000 soldiers posted at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility before September 2003, you might need to check with a doctor. Luckily, the Veteran Affairs (VA) department has established a surveillance program for this exact reason.

Under this program, the VA services can provide free medical screenings for veterans that were at risk in Iraq. If you enroll in the program, you’ll receive an exam going over your whole body — especially on the respiratory system. Again, if you’re an Iraq veteran, this will be completely free of charge.

While authorities don’t expect to find any serious cases when it comes to Qarmat Ali, if you were greatly affected by chromium, you’ll be referred to the correct specialists. If you need any treatment, it’ll be covered by the VA services, and veterans with severe chromium-related conditions may be able to file for disability compensation.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: “How Should Patients Exposed to Chromium Be Treated and Managed?”

Department of Health and Human Services: “Occupational Exposure to Hexavalent Chromium.”

National Toxicology Program: “Hexavalent Chromium.”

PubChem: “Sodium dichromate.”

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs: “Did You Serve at Qarmat Ali?” “Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility.”

United States Department of Labor: “Hexavalent Chromium.”

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