Science & Technology



California wants to ban the toxic chemical that gives chrome its classic shine

Tony Briscoe, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LOS ANGELES — For decades, hexavalent chromium has provided the silvery showroom finish to countless consumer products, from automobile bumpers and grilles to kitchen faucets and light fixtures. It has also served as an indispensable rust-resistant coating for aviation components, such as airplane landing gear.

But while hardened chrome is harmless, the airborne emissions from the plating process are more than 500 times more toxic than diesel exhaust, and pose a substantial cancer risk to surrounding communities.

In light of these risks, the California Air Resources Board has proposed a landmark ban on the use of so-called chrome-6 in decorative plating by 2027, saying the health hazards of the plating process are borne disproportionately by low-income communities. The rule would also prohibit the chemical’s use for industrial durability — such as providing anti-corrosive coatings — by 2039.

The proposal has drawn praise from clean air advocates but has also sent shock waves through the state’s auto restoration and customization industries. It could also force California aerospace companies and defense contractors to accelerate research into less toxic alternatives.

“We would be the first jurisdiction in the world to phase out hexavalent chromium in the plating industry,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Even the EU hasn’t done it because they haven’t found a substitute for crucial uses. We would be working with the industry and the military to actually identify new coatings. That’s precedent setting.”

The proposal, however, has been blasted by the chrome plating industry. Bryan Leiker, executive director of the Metal Finishing Association of California, said that these facilities are already required to comply with the strictest regulations in the nation, and that an outright ban would only compel businesses and jobs to leave California.


“California is trying to force something to happen that’s not ready to happen,” Leiker said. “The consequences are going to be disastrous, because you can lose an entire industry.”

The Air Resources Board will hold the public hearing on the matter at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Riverside. Board members will vote on the final proposal in May.

In California, there are over 110 chrome-plating facilities, and more than 70% of them are located in disadvantaged communities. Los Angeles County in particular — with its abundance of car enthusiasts and top aerospace companies — has the greatest concentration of chrome platers in the nation.

From hot rods to low riders, life in Southern California is still synonymous with classic and customized cars of yesteryear, and chrome’s legacy remains strong. Much of that has to do with the social influence chrome once held in a car-centric region that eagerly adapted itself to automobiles.


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