This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about chromium. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Exposure to chromium occurs from ingesting contaminated food or drinking water or breathing contaminated workplace air. Chromium(VI) at high levels can damage the nose and cause cancer. Ingesting high levels of chromium(VI) may result in anemia or damage to the stomach or intestines. Chromium(III) is an essential nutrient. Chromium has been found in at least 1,127 of the 1,669 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is chromium?
Chromium is a naturally occurring element found in rocks, animals, plants, and soil. It can exist in several different forms. Depending on the form it takes, it can be a liquid, solid, or gas. The most common forms are chromium(0), chromium(III), and chromium(VI). No taste or odor is associated with chromium compounds.
The metal chromium, which is the chromium(0) form, is used for making steel. Chromium(VI) and chromium(III) are used for chrome plating, dyes and pigments, leather tanning, and wood preserving.
What happens to chromium when it enters the environment?
- Chromium can be found in air, soil, and water after release from the manufacture, use, and disposal of chromium-based products, and during the manufacturing process.
- Chromium does not usually remain in the atmosphere, but is deposited into the soil and water.
- Chromium can easily change from one form to another in water and soil, depending on the conditions present.
- Fish do not accumulate much chromium in their bodies from water.
How might I be exposed to chromium?
- Eating food containing chromium(III).
- Breathing contaminated workplace air or skin contact during use in the workplace.
- Drinking contaminated well water.
- Living near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites containing chromium or industries that use chromium.
How can chromium affect my health?
Chromium(III) is an essential nutrient that helps the body use sugar, protein, and fat.
Breathing high levels of chromium(VI) can cause irritation to the lining of the nose, nose ulcers, runny nose, and breathing problems, such as asthma, cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. The concentrations of chromium in air that can cause these effects may be different for different types of chromium compounds, with effects occurring at much lower concentrations for chromium(VI) compared to chromium(III).
The main health problems seen in animals following ingestion of chromium(VI) compounds are irritation and ulcers in the stomach and small intestine and anemia. Chromium(III) compounds are much less toxic and do not appear to cause these problems.
Sperm damage and damage to the male reproductive system have also been seen in laboratory animals exposed to chromium(VI).
Skin contact with certain chromium(VI) compounds can cause skin ulcers. Some people are extremely sensitive to chromium(VI) or chromium(III). Allergic reactions consisting of severe redness and swelling of the skin have been noted.
How likely is chromium to cause cancer?
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Reseach on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have determined that chromium(VI) compounds are known human carcinogens. In workers, inhalation of chromium(VI) has been shown to cause lung cancer. Chromium(VI) also causes lung cancer in animals. An increase in stomach tumors was observed in humans and animals exposed to chromium(VI) in drinking water.
How can chromium affect children?
It is likely that health effects seen in children exposed to high amounts of chromium will be similar to the effects seen in adults.
We do not know if exposure to chromium will result in birth defects or other developmental effects in people. Some developmental effects have been observed in animals exposed to chromium(VI).
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to chromium?
- Children should avoid playing in soils near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites where chromium may have been discarded.
- Chromium is a component of tobacco smoke. Avoid smoking in enclosed spaces like inside the home or car in order to limit exposure to children and other family members.
- Although chromium(III) is an essential nutrient, you should avoid excessive use of dietary supplements containing chromium.
Is there a medical test to determine whether I've been exposed to chromium?
Since chromium(III) is an essential element and naturally occurs in food, there will always be some level of chromium in your body. Chromium can be measured in hair, urine, and blood.
Higher than normal levels of chromium in blood or urine may indicate that a person has been exposed to chromium. However, increases in blood and urine chromium levels cannot be used to predict the kind of health effects that might develop from that exposure.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has determined that exposure to chromium in drinking water at concentrations of 1 mg/L for up to 10 days is not expected to cause any adverse effects in a child.
The FDA has determined that the chromium concentration in bottled drinking water should not exceed 1 mg/L.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has limited workers' exposure to an average of 0.0005 mg/m3 chromium(VI), 0.5 mg/m3 chromium(III), and 1.0 mg/m3 chromium(0) for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2008. Toxicological Profile for Chromium. (Draft for Public Comment). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348