You may have heard that HEPA vacuums can filter out hexavalent chromium. But what exactly is it? Where do you get exposed to it? And how can you avoid it? Here we take a look at this compound.
Breaking Down Hexavalent Chromium
Unless you’ve taken chemistry courses, hexavalent chromium probably sounds like something from Star Trek.
Chromium is an element, much like the others you have heard about – oxygen, sodium, hydrogen. Rather than being a gas, it is a transition metal such as iron or titanium. It is highly desirable because it is shiny – think chrome. This makes it extremely strong, rust resistant, easy to polish, and anti-corrosive.
We won’t delve deep into oxidation-reduction reactions here, but here’s what you need to know: when metals bind to other metals, they can gain or lose electrons. That is how rust forms on iron. When a chromium compound participates in one of these reactions and the compound loses six electrons, it becomes hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium (VI) – and is now toxic. Pure elemental chromium itself is not dangerous and some studies show that chromium (III) may even be an essential nutrient for human life!
Where Is It Found?
Alright, maybe the chemistry is a bit much. We know it is dangerous – so where is it found? It is found in metal work, paints and varnishes, plastics, and wood coatings, all for a variety of chemical reasons. One good example is in hot work with metals, when performing welds. Another common example is stainless steel; as one of its primary components is chromium.
Any time you are working around metal, fumes from paints and dyes, or coated wood you should first find out if what you are working on contains hexavalent chromium.
Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen, or cancer causing agent. It is most likely to get into your system on the job site by breathing, although it can contaminate water sources also. When you then breathe it in, it can deposit in the cells of your respiratory tract and lungs, leading to lung and airway cancers – typically squamous cell carcinomas.
When it gets into water sources, it can have similar effects in other areas of the body. The GI tract, the liver, and other organs can all become cancerous from exposure to hexavalent chromium.
How much is too much?
Permissible exposure limit (PEL). The employer shall ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of chromium (VI) in excess of 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air (5 µg/m3), calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA).”– OSHA
How To Avoid It
First off, know that hexavalent chromium is only dangerous if you get a high amount of it in your system – you aren’t going to get it opening your stainless steel refrigerator. The molecules have to become airborne, which occurs when you cut, grind, sand, strip, or otherwise mess with something that has hexavalent chromium in it. Those molecules become small enough to be breathable and can now pose a threat if too much exposure occurs.
The first way to avoid it is to wear a respirator. Grainger has a great article which covers hexavalent chromium also, including what respirators are appropriate. You can view that article here.
In addition to using an OSHA recommended respirator and other PPE, we recommend a dust control system complete with HEPA filters. Certified HEPA filters are capable of capturing hexavalent chromium. The addition of a dust shroud will cut down on the “airborne concentration of chromium (VI)” by sucking it out of the air and putting into the vacuum.
Hopefully this was an informative article for you. There is a lot to learn when it comes to workplace safety. We highly recommend you learn more at OSHA’s site at this link.
Additionally, we can help find a dust control system that will work for you. Give us a call at (435) 637-5885 and ask for our sales team – we would be glad to find a solution for your job site!