Erin Brockovich and Hexavalent Chromium

Those who have an earnest desire for learning can gain knowledge from any source, be it books, debates or even movies. Actually, you can learn a lot from movies, not just on how to portray a role and to write a good screenplay, but also on topics as diverse as history, medicine, science and law. Take for example the highly acclaimed movie, Erin Brockovich. it’s an eye-opening journey into direct action class suits, chemical poisoning by pollutants, and a lesson on how a public spirited citizen can help the environment and the community.

The movie Erin Brockovich, based on a true story (dramatized version), was released in theatres on the summer of 2000. It stars Julia Roberts in the lead role as Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk who investigates into the elevated cluster of illnesses in the community at Hinkley, linked to hexavalent chromium contaminated water, caused by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). The tagline of the movie sums it up neatly – “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.”

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film received 5 Academy Award nominations. For her role, Julia Roberts won the the Academy Award (Oscar) in the category – ‘Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, Golden Globe Award, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Awards and awards from the National Board of Review and several Critics Choice awards.

About Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich is an American legal clerk and president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, environmental activist, TV Host and winner of the beauty pageant Miss Pacific Coast (1981).

In 1993, Erin began investigating into the health impacts caused by the contamination on groundwater at Hinkley, by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). She learnt that between 1952 to 1966, PG&E had dumped 370 million gallons (approx.) of hexavalent chromium (an additive used as a rust inhibitor inside cooling towers) tainted wastewater into the unlined wastewater spreading ponds around Hinkley, California.

In 1996, Erin and her lawyer Edward L. Masry settled their class-action lawsuit for $333 million, the largest settlement of a direct-action lawsuit in U.S. history (encaptioned Anderson, et al. v. Pacific Gas and Electric – Superior Ct., County of San Bernardino, Barstow Division, file BCV 00300).

Since then she has won several honorary awards, written a book titled Take It From Me: Life’s a Struggle But You Can Win, and participated in many other anti-pollution lawsuits.


What is Hexavalent Chromium?

Chromium is a chemical element that belongs to the transition metal group and is the 13th most abundant element in Earth’s crust with an average concentration of 100 ppm (parts per million). Chromium compounds are found in the environment from the erosion of chromium-containing rocks, and can be redistributed by volcanic eruptions and is thus considered a naturally occurring element that is found in volcanic dust and gases, rocks, animals, plants, soil.

It comes in several different forms, the primary oxidation states being:

  • Trivalent chromium – Chromium (III) / Cr(III) / Chromium 3, is considered an essential nutrient in humans for insulin, sugar and lipid metabolism and is proposed to be an essential nutrient for the body, in the US. It occurs naturally as the rare mineral eskolaite
  • Hexavalent chromium – Chromium (VI) / Cr(VI) / Chromium 6, is a form of the metallic element chromium. It is rare in nature and it is generally produced by industrial processes.

How is hexavalent chromium used?

Chromium compounds, like hexavalent chromium, are used in electroplating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, textile manufacturing, and wood preservation. The U.S. is among the leading producers of chromium compounds.

Industrial uses of hexavalent chromium compounds include:

  • Chromate pigments – in dyes, inks, paints, and plastics;
  • Chromates – added as anti-corrosive agents to primers, paints, other surface coatings; and
  • Chromic acid – electroplated onto metal parts as a decorative or protective coating.
  • Chromium metal – added to alloy steel to increase durability and corrosion resistance

Known health effects of inhaling hexavalent chromium

Hexavalent chromium is considered toxic and is a known human carcinogen i.e Its compounds have been shown to cause cancer in human. The cancer targets the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, nose, skin and eyes.

Who is at risk of exposure?

Hexavalent chromium exposure occurs by ingesting it in food or water, breathing in the air, or direct contact with the skin.

In Studies, it has been observed that workers exposed to high levels of chromium in workroom air have consistently shown increased lung cancer rates.

People working in industries that process or use chromium or chromium compounds are have a high risk of being exposed to higher-than-normal levels of chromium.

Occupational exposures occur mainly among workers who:

  • handle chromate-containing pigments, coatings or spray paints; operate chrome plating baths
  • weld or cut metals that contain chromium like stainless steel

In 2014, the state of California used NTP findings to establish the first in the nation drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion, specifically for hexavalent chromium, not total chromium.

How do I prevent exposure of my family to hexavalent chromium?

  • If you live near a site where chromium and related compounds are disposed of or manufactured:
  • Work with public health officials in your area to determine if hexavalent chromium is present in your environment. Sources such as air, water, and soil should be tested and monitored to see the levels of exposure.
  • Prevent children from playing in soils near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites (where chromium may have been discarded).

What are the safety levels for exposure to chromium in drinking water?



Studies detected Hexavalent chromium in the groundwater samples in California and other states due to public concern about the safety of the drinking water, brought to the public’s attention in many ways, most notably by “Erin Brockovich.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a maximum contaminant level of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium in drinking water. Numerous states have established limits of 50 parts per billion (ppb) of total chromium in drinking water.  The current standard is based on potential adverse dermatological effects over several years, such as allergic dermatitis, etc. The EPA began a rigorous and comprehensive review of its health effects in 2008 and regularly re-evaluates drinking water standards.

What do National Toxicology Program (NTP) studies of Hexavalent Chromium indicate?

The summary of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) researchers discovery:

  • Animals given hexavalent chromium developed malignant tumors i.e Male and female rats had malignant tumors in the oral cavity
  • Increased doses of hexavalent chromium led to the increase in the number of benign and malignant tumors in the small intestine
  • Strong evidence to suggest that hexavalent chromium, or chromium 6, causes cancer

The study concluded that Drinking Water Causes Cancer in Lab Animals. Earlier studies had also indicated that inhaling hexavalent chromium (occupational hazard) caused lung cancer in humans.

You can read more about the research here.

To know more about the Hexavalent Chromium Exposure, Enforcement, Standards, and Controls, click here.


Environs26 (2): 219–32. 2003. (PDF) “The ‘Erin Brockvich effect’: How media shapes toxics policy”.

Author: Blog Desk
Blog Desk comprises many freelance medical and science writers with over a decade of experience in journalism. They have masters qualifications in journalism, science and management and have contributed significantly to the building of this portal. The authors can be contacted at blogdesk (at) skillmd (dot) com.

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