If hexavalent chromium doesn’t ring a bell, think chrome, the stuff that puts the shine on everything from bathroom faucets to motorcycles.
If that still doesn’t help, maybe Erin Brockovich does. In the 1990′s, the former legal clerk fought to expose hexavalent chromium contamination in drinking water, in the small California town of Hinkley. The result was a record-breaking settlement and a major motion picture. Fast forward to April 2009, and the U.S. military is adding a new chapter to the Brockovich book. The Department of Defense has issued a formal memo requiring an aggressive across-the-board reduction in the military’s use of hexavalent chromium, otherwise known as chromium 6.
Hexavalent Chromium and Cancer
Hexavalent chromium counpounds are an extremely versatile group of surface treatments that- aside from the aforementioned shine – resist abrasion, prevent corrosion, and can even self-repair under certain conditions. On the down side, long term exposure to hexavalent chromium is a serious health threat that has been linked to kidney failure, liver failure, peridonitiis, gingivits, conjuntiveitis, and lung cancer. Aside from accidental (or deliberate) ingestion, exposure can consist of direct contact, inhalation of fumes or dust, contact with contaminated soil or other surfaces, or contaminated water. At the time of Brockovich’s work, the link to drinking water was not as strongly established as it is now, but a 2007 National Institutes of Health study on hexavalent chromium revealed more evidence. Laboratory animals used in the two-year study developed malignant tumors in the gastrointestinal tract and sites “where tumors are rarely seen in laboratory animals,” according to researchers.
The U.S. Military and Hexavalent Chromium
High performance anti-corrosives like hexavalent chromium are essential to the U.S. military’s supply chain In terms of operational reliability, particularly in numerous weapons systems. In fact, the Department of Defense has an entire office – the DoD Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight – dedicated to corrosion prevention and mitigation.
U.S. Military Phasing Out Hexavalent Chromium
Despite its heavy reliance on hexavalent chromium, in April 2009 the Department of Defense issued an unusually forceful memorandum (available here) requiring an aggressive phase-out of hexavalent chromium, concurrent with a push to find effective alternatives. The memo cites “serious human health and environmental risks” related to the use of hexavalent chromium, as well as a growing number of international restrictions that threaten the supply chain. The DoD is not messing around. Characterizing the situation as an “extraordinary” one that calls for going “beyond established hazardous materials management processes,” the memo was issued by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and was copied to a dozen directors, commanders, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for all departments to report their implementation plans within one year.
Finding Alternatives to Hexavalent Chromium
The U.S. military has been researching alternatives to hexavalent chromium for several years, and the DoD memo ramps the effort onto a new plane. It brings the entire weight of military’s tech and procurement resources into play, including ASETSDefense (Advanced Surface Engineering Technologies for a Sustainable Defense), which is an initiative of SERDP (the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program) and ESTCP (the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program). Also in the mix are NASA, DLA (the Defense Logistics Agency) and JG-PP (the Joint Group on Pollution Prevention). JG-PP brings DCMA (the Defense Contracts Management Agency) with it, too. The metal finishing industry is also exploring alternatives, despite serious misgivings related to compliance costs and some concern over aesthetics in decorative finishing. Metal Finishing News Online notes that one promising alternative is trivalent chromium, a much less hazardous cousin of hexavalent chromium.
The Future of Hexavalent Chromium
The DoD memo is yet another example of the U.S. military’s lead on sustainability. Especially with American soldiers engaged in two overseas wars, supporting our troops at home is more than a matter of ribbons and flags. It’s also a matter of supporting what has rapidly become a critical logistical goal and national security goal, which according to the U.S Army Environmental Command boils down to “sustaining the environment for a secure future.” In the mean time, for many years to come we will continue to deal with cleaning up contaminated dump sites and supplies. Just ask Ms. Brockovich. June 2009 finds her still battling for safe drinking water, and once again the culprit is hexavalent chromium.
Image: kiwanja on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.