Chromium poisoning and your health
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To protect the public from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals like Chromium and to find ways to treat people who have been harmed by Chromium poisoning, scientists use many tests.
One way to see if a chemical will hurt people is to learn how the chemical is absorbed, used, and released by the body; for some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also be used to identify health effects such as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method to get information needed to make wise decisions to protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals, and scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines.
Chromium(III) is an essential nutrient that helps the body use sugar, protein, and fat. An intake of 50–200 µg of chromium(III) per day is recommended for adults. On the average, adults in the United States take in an estimated 60–80 µg of chromium per day in food. Therefore, many people's diets may not provide enough chromium(III). Without chromium(III) in the diet, the body loses its ability to use sugars, proteins, and fat properly, which may result in weight loss or decreased growth, improper function of the nervous system, and a diabetic-like condition. Therefore, chromium(III) compounds have been used as dietary supplements and are beneficial if taken in recommended dosages.
The health effects resulting from exposure to chromium(III) and chromium(VI) are fairly well described in the literature. In general, chromium(VI) is more toxic than chromium(III). Breathing in high levels (greater than 2 µg/m³) chromium(VI), such as in a compound known as chromic acid or chromium(VI) trioxide, can cause irritation to the nose, such as runny nose, sneezing, itching, nosebleeds, ulcers, and holes in the nasal septum. These effects have primarily occurred in factory workers who make or use chromium(VI) for several months to many years. Long-term exposure to chromium has been associated with lung cancer in workers exposed to levels in air that were 100 to 1,000 times higher than those found in the natural environment. Lung cancer may occur long after exposure to chromium has ended. Chromium(VI) is believed to be primarily responsible for the increased lung cancer rates observed in workers who were exposed to high levels of chromium in workroom air. Breathing in small amounts of chromium(VI) for short or long periods does not cause a problem in most people. However, high levels of chromium in the workplace have caused asthma attacks in people who are allergic to chromium. Breathing in chromium(III) does not cause irritation to the nose or mouth in most people. In the same way, small amounts of chromium(VI) that you swallow will not hurt you; however, accidental or intentional swallowing of larger amounts has caused stomach upsets and ulcers, convulsions, kidney and liver damage, and even death. The levels of chromium(VI) that caused these effects were far greater than those that you might be exposed to in food or water. Although chromium(III) in small amounts is a nutrient needed by the body, swallowing large amounts of chromium(III) may cause health problems. Workers handling liquids or solids that have chromium(VI) in them have developed skin ulcers. Some people have been found to be extremely sensitive to chromium(VI) or chromium(III). Allergic reactions consisting of severe redness and swelling of the skin have been noted. Exposure to chromium(III) is less likely than exposure to chromium(VI) to cause skin rashes in chromium-sensitive people. The metal, chromium(0), is less common and does not occur naturally. We do not know much about how it affects your health, but chromium(0) is not currently believed to cause a serious health risk. We have no reliable information that any form of chromium has harmful effects on reproduction or causes birth defects in humans, though it does not seem likely that the amount of chromium that most people are exposed to will result in reproductive or developmental effects.
In animals that breathed high levels of chromium, harmful effects on the respiratory system and a lower ability to fight disease were noted. However, we do not know if chromium can lower a person's ability to fight disease. Some of the female mice that were given chromium(VI) by mouth had fewer offspring and had offspring with birth defects. Some male mice that were given chromium(VI) or chromium(III) by mouth had decreased numbers of sperm in the testes. The birth defects or the decrease in sperm occurred in mice at levels about several thousand times higher than the normal daily intake by humans. Some chromium(VI) compounds produced lung cancer in animals that breathed in the particles or had the particles placed directly in their lungs. In animals that were injected with some chromium(VI) compounds, tumors formed at the site of injection.
Because some chromium(VI) compounds have been associated with lung cancer in workers and caused cancer in animals, the Department of Health and Human Services has determined that certain chromium(VI) compounds (calcium chromate, chromium trioxide, lead chromate, strontium chromate, and zinc chromate) are known human carcinogens. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that chromium(VI) is carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of chromium(VI) compounds as found in chromate production, chromate pigment production, and chromium plating industries. IARC's determination is also based on sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of calcium chromate, zinc chromate, strontium chromate, and lead chromate; and limited evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of chromium trioxide (chromic acid) and sodium dichromate. IARC has also determined that chromium(0) and chromium(III) compounds are not classifiable as to their carcinogenicity to humans. The EPA has determined that chromium(VI) in air is a human carcinogen. The EPA has also determined that there is insufficient information to determine whether chromium(VI) in water or food and chromium(III) are human carcinogens.
For more information on the health effects of chromium, please see Chapter 2 of the toxicological profile.
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