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The Shiny Scary Truth About Chromium

Chromium shows up in surprising places in modern society—most notably on car bumpers and furniture to improve how they look. Too often, the facilities that do this kind of plating put the carcinogen hexavalent chromium into the air in local communities where they operate.

The highly toxic chemical was made infamous by Erin Brockovich’s work on a California case where hexavalent chromium leaked into a town’s drinking water. The case resulted in action against Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which settled for several hundred million dollars. Yet that case has hardly been the only incident, or the only way, that hexavalent chromium from these facilities can affect people’s health.

Today, hexavalent chromium also threatens our air. Chromium plating facilities spew a high level of the carcinogen into local communities, posing dire health consequences. There are about 1,350 chrome plating facilities active in the United States, many located in urban areas or near communities of color and lower income communities. These facilities have been pumping this carcinogen near schools and day care centers. The situation is deplorable, all the more so because the EPA can prevent kids from being exposed.

One state has already taken action. In 2006 California passed stringent standards on pollution control, including restrictions on where chromium plating facilities could be located. Given that, six years later, more than 200 chromium plating facilities continue to operate in California while meeting these stronger standards, one would think the EPA would follow suit and require all facilities in the nation at least to match the gains made in California.

Yet the EPA has continued to avoid adopting a national standard that follows California’s lead. It took a 2009 lawsuit by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club to even prompt a review of EPA’s air toxic standards for chrome plating, which it finally completed this year. After Earthjustice, Sierra Club, California Communities Against Toxics and other affected community groups advocated for improved health protection over the last two years, the EPA strengthened its national standards a bit. But, the new rule issued in September does not even require the level of emission reduction already achieved in California. It also is seriously weaker than what the Clean Air Act requires to keep all U.S. neighborhoods safe from this carcinogen.

With that in mind, Earthjustice has filed a challenge in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, on behalf of the Clean Air Council, California Communities Against Toxics, and Sierra Club to explain why the court should require the EPA to revisit and strengthen this rule. All Americans have a right to clean and carcinogen-free air regardless of where they live, and the EPA must do more to finally protect all affected communities around the country from being forced to breathe hexavalent chromium.