Chromium-6 is definitely not “the new asbestos”

Chromium-6 has already been in the news for some time now. Hexavalent chromium, chromium (VI) oxide, is a substance that is used to give paint and coatings, for example, additional properties such as anti-corrosion and wear resistance. Exposure to chromium-6 poses a major risk to all kinds of health problems. The social impact is so great that chromium-6 is already being called “the new asbestos”. But that comparison isn’t valid.

Exposure to chromium-6 can cause a range of disorders

Chromium in itself is not a toxic substance. Our bodies even need chromium-3 as an essential nutrient. However, the same does not apply to chromium-6. Exposure to chromium-6 can cause a range of disorders – from allergies and asthma to auto-immune disease or fatal diseases such as nose cancer and lung cancer. What’s less well-known is the fact that chromium-6 affects the development of unborn children and can cause infertility. What’s more, there is still a very wide range of disorders where chromium-6 is a suspected cause.

Risk that DNA in the body cells becomes damaged

Now we know that exposure to asbestos can cause breast cancer, also known as asbestos cancer. It is the asbestos fibre itself that causes this. If chromium-6 enters the body through inhalation, swallowing or through the skin, it isn’t harmful straight away. It’s our bodies that convert chromium-6 into the harmless chromium-3. In some cases, that conversion takes place internally in the body cells, causing potential DNA damage. The consequences are potentially serious disorders such as cancer or auto-immune disease.

A layer of paint or a coating can contain chromium-6 too

However, the use of chromium-6 has been banned since 2006. Before that, chromium-6 was used in paints and coatings for a long time. And that’s not just in paint on military equipment. The paint on a lamppost, the coating of a floor or the protective layer of a pipeline may also contain chromium-6. Even in the home in layers of paint on staircases and window frames, for example, and even in the paint on leather. In brief, every layer of paint or coating applied before 2006 could contain chromium-6. Unlike asbestos, chromium-6 isn’t as easy to recognise.

Wearing appropriate respiratory protection and protective clothing

Yet you won’t become ill if a layer of paint contains chromium-6. You do run a risk of becoming ill if chromium-6 is released into the air, however, as then it can find its way into your body. That happens, for example, if the surface is treated by sanding, sawing, polishing or burning off. Appropriate respiratory protection and protective clothing must therefore be worn as an absolute minimum. Use of a dust extractor also helps to reduce exposure. However, in order to take the correct measures, you do need to know whether the surface contains chromium-6 and in what concentration.

Testing for chromium and chromium-6

Whether chromium-6 has been used in a layer of paint can rarely be determined straight away. Manufacturers of paints and coatings rarely stated it on the packaging, and that’s if the packaging and the used paint can still be traced today. The element chromium can be detected in a painted or coated surface, however, using a special scanner. A non-destructive test where the layer of paint does not need to be scraped off. If the test yields a positive result, you don’t yet know whether either harmless chromium-3 or harmful chromium-6 has been detected.

Old layers of paint and primer

What follows then is a test in which a few scrapings of the paint are tested for the presence of harmless chromium-3 or harmful chromium-6. If chromium-6 is identified, several samples then need to be tested in a laboratory to see the concentration in which chromium-6 is present. The result determines the exposure level and the protective measures to be taken when working the paint. Old layers of paint and primer, with newer layers applied on top, could make the testing extremely complex.

Social impact may be even greater than asbestos

The fact that chromium-6 can cause different disorders and that chromium-6 was been widely used, may make the social impact many times greater than asbestos. What’s more, the body responds very differently to exposure to asbestos than to chromium-6. For that reason alone, it cannot be compared to the asbestos problem. We believe that the chromium-6-problem is even greater and more complex.

Want to find out more about chromium-6?

Watch RIVM’s information video. If you have any further questions, please call us on +31 (0)88 130 6030 and ask for the respiratory protection department. Or leave a message using our contact form.

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