Chromium 6 In Drinking Water: Background, Exposure, Toxicology


Wendy Spicer, M.S.  |  Scientific Contributor 

If you have seen the film Erin Brockovich, you are familiar with chromium 6 (Also known as hexavalent chromium and chromium(VI)) water contamination. The movie tells the story of a legal clerk turned activist who uncovers that a California utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), was knowingly dumping chromium 6 waste and contaminating the local water supply. Brockovich’s law firm, Masry and Vititoe, represented over 600 clients in a lawsuit against PG&E which settled for 333 million dollars in 1993. Despite the success and fame of this story, chromium 6 water contamination remains largely unregulated and problematic across the United States. A survey from 2013-2015 performed by the non-profit Environmental Working Group estimated that the water supplies serving over 218 million Americans is contaminated with chromium 6 levels that exceed the amount deemed safe.

What Is Chromium?

Chromium (Cr) is a naturally occurring element with many industrial applications, namely the production of alloys such stainless steel as well as leather tanning processes. Chromium compounds are also used as industrial catalysts and pigments, creating bright green, yellow, red and orange colors. Chromium plating, which adds a shiny polished mirror finish to steel or plastic, is commonly seen on household appliances and vehicles.

Chromium can be found in several oxidation states, meaning that they differ in the number of electrons surrounding the atom’s nucleus. Chromium 6 is the highly-toxic form of chromium. Industrial discharge is the largest source of chromium 6 in our environment and is released into air and wastewater by metal processing facilities, tannery facilities, chromate production, stainless steel welding, ferrochrome production, and pigment production. The major way that most people are exposed to chromium 6 is through contaminated food and water.

What Are The Adverse Health Effects Of Chromium in Water?

Not all forms of chromium are highly toxic to humans. For example, chromium(III) (also known as trivalent chromium) is an essential nutrient that plays a role in glucose, fat and protein metabolism by potentiating the action of insulin. It is also important to note that different chemical forms of the same metal, as well as particle size and form of ingestion, will all contribute to differences in the carcinogenic potential of each chromium containing compound.

There is strong evidence that chromium 6 is a human carcinogen (i.e. it causes cancer). In addition to many types of cancer, chromium 6 exposure is known to cause multiorgan toxicity such as renal damage, allergy and asthma. Breathing high levels of chromium 6 can cause irritation to the lining of the nose, and nose ulcers. Lung and respiratory cancers are more common in industrial workers (where it is more likely to be inhaled) while gastrointestinal tumors are more common in humans and animals exposed to chromium 6 in drinking water. Accidental or intentional ingestion of extremely high doses of chromium 6 compounds can cause acute respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hematological, hepatic, renal, and neurological distress which may result in death.

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