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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Chromium Pollution Exposure

Air Date: Week of

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Residents of a neighborhood in San Diego ask for air monitoring to help explain high rates of asthma there. They set in motion a re-examination of laws regulating carcinogenic chrome from chrome plating. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports.


ROSS: When authorities in southern California conducted a sweeping study of air pollution a few years ago, they found that out of all industrial plants, chrome plating shops posed the highest risk of cancer. That came as a surprise because the metal plating industry is much cleaner than it once was. So air officials began to reexamine their rules for chrome platers, but recent testing of a neighborhood in San Diego has put regulators into high gear. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: It flashes in the sunlight. It won't rust. It's part of what makes a Harley so beautiful. It's chrome. But forks and fenders don't roll off the production line shimmering, they need to be chrome plated, usually dipped in electrified baths of liquid metal and acid. A surprising number of plating shops are mom and pop operations that dip police badges and key rings, others like All Metals Processing in Orange County can work to the fine tolerances required on weapons and aircraft.

BLAKE: Those are the shields for a guidance system in a missile. And that acts as an EMF shield for that guidance system so that it can't be jammed by outside signals.

LOBET: Geoffrey Blake is Environment and Safety Manager at All Metals. As its name implies, the firm does aluminum and cadmium, as well as chrome plating, on parts for F-15 fighter jets and commercial airplanes. But whether you're plating missile parts or little league trophies, he explains, the idea is the same.

BLAKE: Well, basically what happens is you dissolve metal into liquid form, in what they call ionic form, and you run a current through the tank. And the metal transfers from the solution onto the part itself. Then it actually forms a film over the original metal.

LOBET: High performance plating and anodizing shops like this one often have hoods installed over their plating baths to suck acidic mist out of the room and into HEPA filters. It's a far cry from some past practices when, for example, vapor mist rising off the baths would penetrate workers' noses. Dr. Shane Que Hee teaches environmental chemistry at UCLA.

QUE HEE: One of the major health effects from chrome plating is, in fact, nasal septum perforation, when you have a high exposure. And that is caused by combined action of the chromium, which itself is acidic, plus the sulfuric acid.

LOBET: In the past, it also wasn't unusual for struggling shop owners to dump their plating baths or cleaning solvents into drains or illegal pipes connected to the sewer. Most of those bad practices have been reformed, and many bad actors put out of business. But Rich Sullivan who prosecutes environment and worker safety crimes at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office says, violations in the plating industry still occur.

SULLIVAN: Of the cases that are environmental, I would say that probably a good third of the cases are probably plating shops. So we always have some plating shop cases in the system.

LOBET: Accidents and emergencies at plating plants, such as fires, also used to be more common. Now, they are rare. But recently, there was a major pre-dawn fire at an LA plating plant.

FEMALE: An intense orange inferno lit up the early morning sky. The black smoke so thick it would completely cover the wall of flames. By the time Glendale firefighters got there, there was no stopping this fire.

LOBET: Despite the ongoing prosecutions and occasional dramatic events like this one, environmental officials believed most of the past problems with the plating industry were just that, history. That includes one of the principal health concerns with plating, exposure to a form of chromium known as hexavalent chromium, or chrome-6. The science on the dangers of chrome-6 in drinking water, contrary to its depiction in the movie, Erin Brokovich, is not clear-cut. But no one doubts that breathing chrome-6 is a problem.

BLAISDELL: It turns out that hexavalent chromium is one of the most potent carcinogens that have been discovered.

LOBET: Dr. Bob Blaisdell is a toxicologist with California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, an agency regulators turn to here for much of their scientific data.

BLAISDELL: When somebody inhales hexavalent chromium, it deposits in the lung. It penetrates the cells. It causes damage to the genetic material, and ultimately causes lung cancer. It generates what we call free radicals, which damage the DNA.

LOBET: The California Air Resources Board went after chromium almost as soon as it gained the authority to regulate air pollution hazards back in the 1980s. Spokesman Jerry Martin says the rules laid down back then removed 97 percent of the chromium from the air.

MARTIN: Chromium is highly toxic. It has been known to be toxic for many years. So, therefore, it was one of the first compounds chosen to be controlled because of the prevalence in the environment. So, clearly, the public was well protected, in our mind.

LOBET: Any problems that still existed in the plating business were thought to be a matter of enforcement. Then came Barrio Logan.


LOBET: The Mexican music known as banda spills from a home in Barrio Logan, an old Chicano neighborhood in San Diego where diesel trucks rumble and downshift on their way to the nearby port. Michael and Elvia Martinez and their children live in Barrio Logan, their frame house wedged between two chrome plating businesses. A sophisticated air tester sits whining in the front yard, placed there by air quality officials.

MICHAEL MARTINEZ: My son was diagnosed with asthma six months after we moved here. The medication he's on contains steroids.

ROBERT MARTINEZ: I start coughing and I have to stay home, and never go to school. When you are coughing it feels like the heart is beeping. I have to stay home. I have to stay in bed, and I can't go outside and run around.

LOBET: Robert is six. He can't stray far from a plug-in ventilator.

M. MARTINEZ: It's hard for us. It's been difficult. And we can't-- we love nature, we're outdoors people. We don't do that no more. For us to go anywhere far away, we have to make sure that there's somewhere to plug this thing in. We used to spend our vacations in the woods and the mountains. We don't do none of that no more.

LOBET: One of the two plating shops, Master Plating, practically hangs over the Martinez backyard. Michael Martinez says that at first he didn't associate Robert's asthma with the plater, but he did notice the business was dirty.

The Martinez family home sits to the left
of the now-closed Master Plating plant.

M. MARTINEZ: Just that they're dumping stuff out in the alley, green liquids, I don't know what it was. You'd always see puddles back there right in front of their driveway there.

LOBET: Several years ago, the Martinezes and several other Barrio Logan families contacted the Environmental Health Coalition, a San Diego group, to find out why asthma seemed so common in their community. In a survey of 188 families, the advocacy group found asthma symptoms in the area were twice as prevalent as in a control group in a similar neighborhood. The group's attorney, Paula Forbis, speaking in the Martinez's yard, says she suspected the plating shop might be a problem, but without testing the air, there was no way to know. And she couldn’t get anyone in San Diego county to listen.

FORBIS: We had approached the county to do some air toxics monitoring in this community, and they refused. They said that there was no problem in Barrio Logan, and they flatly refused.

LOBET: After several efforts to work with local authorities in San Diego, Forbis called state officials at the California Air Resources Board, and they agreed to come to the neighborhood and monitor. It was a decision that would lead to changes in the agency's outlook. Spokesman Jerry Martin.

MARTIN: We agreed to come in and do some monitoring in the area. And quite frankly, that was the first time we had ever attempted to monitor a single location, a very small community. Generally, as most state agencies do, we look at an area more like flying over at 30,000 feet. In the case of Barrio Logan, for the first time in our history, we actually walked the streets of the neighborhood, talked to people, talked to businesses, and tried to assess what the personal exposure to residents in that area was.

LOBET: The air officials went door-to-door. They tested for a number of pollutants, lead, volatile organics, soot. They observed truck traffic. Asked who in the neighborhood smoked. Even whether people fry-cooked their food, creating smoke in the kitchen.

MARTIN: At first we didn't find much at all. We didn't find a lot that was unusual, or that was different from other parts of San Diego.

LOBET: Paula Forbis says one thing, though, did seem to immediately make an impression on air officials.

FORBIS: We found that the officials that came were surprised to see the extreme proximity, and this patchwork quilt of land uses. Because typically you think of industries in an industrial area or a park that's segregated from people's homes. So to think of an industry that's essentially on what used to be a residential lot, where somebody's house was torn down to build this plating shop, is something that I think was foreign to a lot of the people involved in the regulatory process.

MARTIN: We changed position of the monitors and suddenly began picking up some very high readings of chromium near the two plating facilities in the area. They were some of the highest we have ever seen in the state.

LOBET: In fact, the highest day's reading for chrome-6 in the Martinez's backyard was 20 times the peak anywhere else in California in 2001, the last year for which figures were available. Cancer risk was the immediate worry. There are also non-cancer risks associated with plating, including lung damage, but the levels detected in the neighborhood were not thought high enough for that. So the link between the high chromium levels and asthma in the neighborhood remains unclear.

The findings in Barrio Logan presented a complex picture. The highest levels were found in the Martinez's backyard. Remember, it was sandwiched between the two plating shops. The higher volume shop was required to have expensive filtering equipment, and it had no measurable chrome emissions. But the smaller shop, Master Plating, was what's known as a decorative plater. These smaller shops are not required to have any sort of air filtering system. So Master Plating was operating legally, at least according to its own reports.

More than half the nearly 200 plating shops in California could be in the same situation. Months after the investigation, officials are still talking about Barrio Logan. They're drafting new laws governing chromium-6. More shops will have to use vapor suppressants, especially if they're near homes, hospitals, or schools. But an even larger lesson regulators are drawing is that plating shops should simply not be located near where people live. Again, Jerry Martin.

MARTIN: Well, I think that's the real thing we learn from Barrio Logan, that mixing certain industrial practices and industries with residences can be a problem, and city planners need to be very careful about that.

LOBET: People in the metal finishing business say keeping industry separate from neighborhoods is a laudable ideal, but reality is less simple. Dan Cunningham is with the Southern California Metal Finishers Association.

CUNNINGHAM: We don't like the fact that there's a residence or a chrome shop in a neighborhood, or a residence in an industrial area. We see that as a terrible zoning problem. In some cases, the homes were there first. In some cases, the businesses were there first. But in either case, it shouldn't have been allowed to happen.

LOBET: And Cunningham points out that even close to people's homes and schools, a metal finisher can operate safely.

CUNNINGHAM: But like even Barrio Logan, there was a house within a few feet of two different plating shops. But one shop was emitting virtually zero, and it was a bigger shop, and they did more plating, and they weren't a problem.

LOBET: From the industry's viewpoint, the Air Pollution Authority that governs Southern California is on the verge of passing stricter rules, rules that can have national influence, all because of one incident. Health activists on the other hand view it this way. The state examined just one place, and look what it found.

FORBIS: What we're asking for is to really deal with this in a precautionary approach, because we can't spend 15 years analyzing every chrome plater, or every kind of different industry that's in these kinds of neighborhoods that's putting people at this level of risk.

LOBET: In California, the phrase Barrio Logan has become synonymous among air officials with a hazard that's both potent and unexpected. Today, the larger, cleaner plating facility remains open. Master Plating has closed. The fallout from its operations is likely to be not only tighter controls on plating, but a greater willingness to test the air where homes are side by side with industry.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in San Diego.



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