There’s a toxic history to the shiny decorative finishes so ubiquitous on the wheels and bumpers of classic cars.
Chrome plating is important for a variety of consumer products, from vintage automobiles to aerospace components and plumbing fixtures.
But hexavalent chromium, a highly dangerous substance emitted by chrome plating companies, is 500 times more carcinogenic than diesel exhaust, which has put it in the crosshairs of regulators for decades.
The California Air Resources Board today approved a landmark ban on the use of the substance by the chrome industry. The ban forces companies that opposed the action to use alternative materials.
The ban came after more than two hours of public debate and comment. Board members, noting their empathy for potentially affected vintage auto silversmiths, said public health was paramount.
“The problem is what they are doing there: they are boiling vats of a toxic solution of water and metal.”
JANE WILLIAMS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITIES AGAINST TOXICS OF CALIFORNIA
Hector De La Torre, an Air board member, likened the ban to a 1976 rule that phased out lead in gasoline.
“There is no mass-produced leaded gasoline, not just in California, in the United States, so that changed as a result of an action that was taken here,” De La Torre said. “So there’s a precedent for taking a leap like that, for the health and safety of the public.”
The new rule will make California the first state to ban the substance more commonly known as chromium-6. Decorative coating companies will have until 2027 to discontinue its use. The largest chrome-plating plants, which use the toxin for industrial durability purposes, will have until 2039.
The ban comes after years of efforts by activists to limit use of the chemical, which the state identified as a toxic air pollutant in 1986. Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, said the ruling is Important because Los Angeles County has a high concentration of chrome.
The air board said 113 chrome-plating facilities operate with hexavalent chromium in California, and more than 70% of them are in overburdened and disadvantaged communities, many close to homes and schools, though industry representatives said in public comments that the board numbers were inaccurate.
“They can be tiny, they can be small, or they can be located within larger industrial facilities, so it’s not something that surprises you, like a generator or a refinery,” Williams said. “But the problem is what they’re doing there: they’re boiling vats of a toxic solution of metal and water.”
Industrial components are coated by immersing them in baths containing chrome 6, although decorative and functional coating use different processes. Emissions occur in the form of bubbles that rise to the top of tanks and can be released as mists, droplets, and spills that can settle on floors, equipment, and other surfaces. Once dry, dust can escape through open doors and vents.
Bryan Leiker, executive director of the California Metal Finishing Association, said the air board rule amounts to an unfair ban on an industry that has shown it can safely use the toxic substance.
He pointed to state data indicating that the largest chrome facilities in the state produce less than 1% of emissions, with the majority coming from burning fossil fuels, cement production and other industries.
“The problem we have here is that our industry is, of course, okay with fair regulation, but what we have here is a ban,” Leiker said. “This is just a universal ban across the industry.”
Less toxic trivalent chromium is available as an alternative, and the air seal hopes it will be widely adopted by decorative chrome after the ban. The problem, say the chrome trim, is that trivalent chrome lacks the ornate shine of chrome 6, that ubiquitous shine among the sleek lowriders synonymous with Art Leboe or the gleaming hot rods of “American Graffiti.”
“Our industry could be a ghost town in the state, long gone; there’s a lot at stake here.”
BRYAN LEIKER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CALIFORNIA METAL FINISHING ASSOCIATION
Trivalent chromium is not “period correct,” wrote Art Holman, managing partner at Sherm’s Plating in Sacramento, in a recent public comment to the air board. Holman wrote that he fears that customers will ship their products to other states to be plated, “adding more chrome emissions due to transportation.”
Meanwhile, trivalent chromium does not meet the requirements of the US Department of Defense. Leiker said the air board hopes the military will adopt new materials. But uncertainty is a big risk for an industry that often relies on long lead times and multi-year contracts.
“It’s going to put our industry out of business, with job losses and a huge exodus from manufacturing,” he said. “Our industry could be a ghost town in the state, long gone; there’s a lot at stake here.”
The Legislature has set aside $10 million to help the industry make the change, but some board members said the money probably wasn’t enough.
In 1988, the air board adopted its first emissions standards for the use of chromium-6 in the coating industry, requiring facilities to equip their tanks with smoke suppressants, filters, or other pollution control devices. Over the intervening decades, those rules have been revised to further restrict and regulate hexavalent chromium.
The toxin has some presence in popular culture. The court battle over the presence of the chemical in drinking water in the San Bernardino County town of Hinkley was dramatized in the film “Erin Brockovich.”
But environmental advocates and residents of Los Angeles’ low-income neighborhoods and industrial cities have long raised concerns. Residents of the southeastern industrial city of Bell Gardens sued a chrome plating company, Chrome Crankshaft, in 1999, accusing it of producing emissions that had caused illness, including cancer, according to The Los Angeles Times.
More recently, air monitoring in the southeastern industrial city of Paramount was expanded after chromium 6 was discovered at much higher levels than in other parts of Los Angeles County in 2016. Paramount Unified School District detected chromium 6 in air samples inside two classrooms there. The South Coast Air Quality Management District said air quality has improved significantly since then.
Christopher Callard, a spokesman for Paramount, said the city had not detected significant samples of chromium-6, including in schools, since it took over monitoring for the substance in 2021.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company that explains California policies and politics.