What Is Hexavalent Chromium?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 08, 2022
3 min read

Hexavalent chromium is a type of the element chromium. Doctors have found that it can cause cancer and harm other parts of your body. Chromium is naturally found in animals, rocks, plants, soil, gases, and volcanic dust. But experts usually find hexavalent chromium in industrial areas.

You may have heard of hexavalent chromium from the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich. She (played by Julia Roberts) took on a company accused of allowing the chemical into the water of a rural town in California, resulting in many of the town’s residents becoming ill or dying of increased rates of cancer.

The United States is one of the world’s top producers of chromium compounds like hexavalent chromium.

Some workers use hexavalent chromium today during industrial processes. Chromium metal helps steel stay hardened and makes it less likely to break down. Chromium compounds might also be in dyes, inks, paints, primers, other surface coatings, and plastics.

Hexavalent chromium may be present in places that do:

  • Electroplating (coating an object in a layer of metal)
  • Stainless steel production
  • Textile manufacturing
  • Leather tanning
  • Wood preservation

Some people are more likely to be around hexavalent chromium. This includes people who:

  • Weld with carbon and stainless steel
  • Work in steel mills with iron and steel foundries
  • Work in the electroplating, textile dying, or wood preservation industries
  • Use or work near wet cement

If you work in or around these areas, you might be exposed to hexavalent chromium. This can happen if you accidentally breathe it in, have direct contact with it through your skin, or drink or eat it through water or food.

If you think you’ve been exposed to hexavalent chromium, your doctor can run some tests. There’s no specific test for this compound, but certain lab exams can help look for any exposure in your body. These include:

  • Urinalysis
  • Chest radiograph
  • Kidney function tests

Researchers have also suggested other tests that might help:

  • Nasal examination by brushing your inner nasal area
  • Skin patch tests, especially for those who’ve developed asthma from exposure to hexavalent chromium
  • Tests that look for low molecular weight in urine proteins
  • Sputum cytology exams, which look at mucus from your lungs

Experts know that hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen, or something that causes cancer. It can lead to lung cancer in humans.

This compound can also cause other harmful side effects like:

  • Nasal and sinus cancers
  • Nasal and skin irritation
  • Ulcers in your nose or on your skin
  • Eye irritation and damage
  • Kidney and liver damage

Water with sodium dichromate dihydrate, which is a compound that has hexavalent chromium in it, might also have risks. In an animal study, experts found that animals who drank this water developed cancer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a maximum level of 100 parts of chromium per billion of drinking water. Many states lowered that to 50 parts per billion of drinking water. This means that there is very little chromium in the water that you drink. So your risk of exposure is very low.

The best way to limit your and your family’s exposure to hexavalent chromium is to work with your public health officials. They can look at the hexavalent chromium levels in your area and find out if it’s present or not. They’ll study your water, soil, and air. This is especially important if you live in an area where chromium compounds are common.

Don’t let your children play with soil near uncontrolled waste sites. Chromium might be in the soil in these areas.

If you work in an area that uses hexavalent chromium, follow guidelines for protection from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).