Fact Sheet – Chromium

Estimated Population At Risk At Polluted Sites: 7.3 Million People*

Estimated Global Impact: 13 to 17 Million People*


What Is Chromium?

Chromium is a naturally occurring element used in a variety of industrial processes. Chromium can cause severe health effects in humans depending on the amount of exposure, the pathway, and the type of chromium. Although it can be released through natural forces, the majority of environmental releases of chromium are from industrial sources. Chromium is commonly found in two forms: trivalent chromium (chromium III) and hexavalent chromium (chromium VI). Chromium III is the more stable form, and occurs naturally in animals, plants, rocks, and soils. Chromium VI rarely occurs in nature, and is usually the product of anthropogenic activities. Chromium VI is considered the more dangerous to humans.


What Is Chromium Used For?

The industries with the largest contribution to chromium releases include leather tanning operations, metal processing, stainless steel welding, chromate production, and chrome pigment production. Chromium can be found in many consumer products, including wood treated with copper dichromate, leather tanned with chromic sulfate, and stainless steel cookware.


How Is Chromium Released Into The Environment?

Industries that use chromium in their processes may release the element in the form of a vapor or may be mixed with other solid or liquid wastes. Chromium contamination is a particular problem in South Asia, where many small-scale tanneries and dye factories use chromium and do not have access to proper wastewater treatment facilities. As a result, wastes that contain chromium are often discharged into local dumps or waterways.


How Does Chromium Reach Humans?

Chromium can exist in air, water, soil, and food, and common exposure pathways include ingestion, inhalation, or dermal contact. Once released into the environment, chromium can migrate into groundwater supplies used for drinking. Chromium is also found in crops that have been irrigated using water from rivers contaminated with the element.


What Health Risks Can Chromium Cause?

Depending on the type of exposure, chromium IV can damage the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and immunological systems, and can cause reproductive and developmental problems. Chromium VI is a known human carcinogen, and can increase the rate of various types of cancers. Occupational exposure to chromium VI through inhalation has been linked to increased rates of respiratory cancer.


*Population estimates are preliminary and based on an ongoing global assessment of polluted sites.

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