California proposes banning use of toxic chrome

For decades, hexavalent chromium has given the silvery showroom finish to countless consumer products, from car bumpers and grilles to kitchen faucets and lighting fixtures. It also served as an indispensable rust-resistant coating for aerospace components such as aircraft landing gear.

But while hardened chrome is harmless, the air emissions from the plating process are more than 500 times more toxic than diesel exhaust and pose a significant 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 chromium-6 in decorative coatings by 2027, stating that the health hazards of the coating process are disproportionately borne by low-income communities. The rule would also ban use of the chemical for industrial durability — like providing anti-corrosion coatings — by 2039.

The proposal has been praised by clean air advocates but has also sent shockwaves through the state’s auto restoration and customization industry. It could also force California aerospace 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 coatings industry,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “Even the EU didn’t do it because they couldn’t find a replacement for crucial applications. We would work with industry and the military to actually identify new coatings. This is precedent.”

However, the proposal was blasted by the chrome plating industry. Bryan Leiker, General Manager of Metal Finishing Assn. from California, said these facilities already have to meet the country’s strictest regulations and that an outright ban would only force businesses and jobs to leave California.

“California is trying to force something that isn’t ready yet,” Leiker said. “The consequences will be catastrophic because you can lose an entire industry.”

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

There are over 110 chrome plating plants in California, and more than 70% of them are in disadvantaged communities. Los Angeles County in particular – with its abundance of car enthusiasts and leading aerospace companies – has the largest concentration of chromers in the country.

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

“Because you were in your car so much, it was a different way of greeting the world,” said Leslie Kendall, chief historian at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “It was like your ultimate outer layer of clothing. Chrome on a car was like a brooch for a lady’s coat, something that embellished the shape.”

Auto clubs gather Sunday, June 28, 2020 before a drive down historic Whittier Boulevard.

Auto clubs gather Sunday, June 28, 2020 before a drive down historic Whittier Boulevard.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

But the mirror-smooth shine on wheels, bumpers and grilles comes at a price. This shine is achieved by immersing automotive parts in industrial tanks in a liquid solution containing a powerful carcinogen.

An electric current is passed through the tank, causing hexavalent chromium to adhere to the part. At the same time, however, the tension also causes the solution to bubble and release chromium-containing vapors when it bursts.

Many of these surgeries try to reduce the fumes B. by adding chemical smoke suppressants to the chromium solution. But these suppressants contain PFAS, another highly toxic compound that finds its way into local waterways.

California in 1986 identified hexavalent chromium as a toxic air pollutant that does not have a safe exposure level. Over time, people are becoming more concerned about the health consequences of the chemical.

In 1998, community groups called for an investigation into a chrome plating facility near Suva Elementary and Middle Schools in Bell Gardens.

The groups suspected that chromium emissions had contributed to numerous health problems for children, teachers and local residents. According to organizers, 22 students and six teachers at the schools have been diagnosed with cancer in eight years.

Several families, including those whose children died of cancer, have filed a lawsuit against Chrome Crankshaft, a company that coats locomotive parts. The lawsuit was later settled.

Since then the state has accepted it nation’s strictest Emission standards for chrome plating operations.

Today, about 9% of chromers in California work within 1,000 feet of schools.

The metal finishing industry has argued that its emissions pale in comparison to others.

California’s 58 major chrome plating plants produced less than 1% of the hexavalent chromium pollution, according to state data. Most of it comes from burning fossil fuels. Cement production and the timber industry also emit more.

“We’re responsible for less than 1% of emissions nationwide, but we’re the only industry currently facing a ban,” Leiker said.

Although the amount of total emissions may seem insignificant, state regulators and environmentalists claim that chromium plating plants can drastically increase concentrations in the immediate vicinity, posing a long-term health threat.

The Air Resources Board hopes the proposed rule will encourage these facilities to switch to trivalent chromium, a far less toxic alternative that has been available as a replacement since the early 1990s.

However, trivalent chromium has not been widely used in the decorative coatings industry because its darker color resembles stainless steel, an aesthetic that has not appealed to California auto enthusiasts striving to recreate 20th-century high-gloss shine.

“It’s a different color and just wouldn’t look right on these older cars,” said Elayne Bendel, board member of the Lincoln and Continental Owner’s Club Western Region. “It would never live up to what came out of the factory, say, 1960 or anytime back then.”

If California’s chrome proposal goes through, the Mission Viejo resident said, classic car owners here would likely have to ship their parts out of the state to have them chrome-plated, making a difficult hobby even more expensive.

“There’s a labor shortage, a parts shortage, and taking away the ability to get good chrome locally, that’s just another aspect of the difficulty of owning these cars,” Bendel said.

But chrome has been used for more than just beautifying cars.

California is home to some of the world’s largest aerospace and defense contractors. The trivalent chromium coating has not been demonstrated to meet US Department of Defense specifications for thickness, hardness, and corrosion resistance.

A decommissioned Air Force One jet is on display at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

A decommissioned Air Force One jet that transported President Ronald Reagan is on display at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

(Tyrone Beason/Los Angeles Times)

“The Department of Defense is exploring less toxic alternative coatings to hexavalent chromium, including applications through additive manufacturing processes,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Gorman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our public and private industry partners and communicate on possible changes in this area.”

The California Air Resources Board acknowledges that the rule would have far-reaching implications, and estimates that several thousand jobs could be lost in manufacturing and other chrome-plating-related sectors.

The remaining chrome plating facilities will incur significant costs to transition to trivalent chrome plating, which the Air Board estimates would be approximately $323,000 for decorative coaters and $4 million for industrial coaters.

“It’s completely new equipment, a new solution, a new process and new permits,” said Leiker, head of metal finishing. “It’s not that easy to empty the tank and pour in the new solution.”

If the rule is approved, the state legislature has earmarked $10 million per year for the first three years to help chromers make the transition.

The public can view the Air Resources Board meeting online or register to attend. California proposes banning use of toxic chrome

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