CASTLE HAYNE — A chemical manufacturing company that has a plant in this community near Wilmington has been ordered by a federal judge to pay more than $2.5 million for failing to inform its employees of the potential health hazards of exposure to one of the compounds made at the plant, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Elementis Chromium Inc., one of the largest chromium chemical makers in the world, was ordered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Administrative Law Judges late last week to pay the $2,571,800 penalty, according to the EPA.
What Is Hex Chrome?
From Ask the Water Doctor
Hexavalent chromium, which is also called hex chrome or chromium-6, is a metal used in a number of industrial processes.
Hex chrome is a potent human carcinogen and people are exposed to it by breathing contaminated air and, as in the case made famous by Erin Brockovich, drinking contaminated tap water.
Uses – Hexavalent chromium is a metal used in industrial processes such as chrome plating (which puts a shiny, anti-corrosive finish on wheels or plumbing fixtures, for example), steel production, metal working, tanning, paint and pigment manufacturing, glass-making and cement manufacturing. Until recently, chromium compounds, including hex chrome, were widely used as a wood preservative in pressure-treated wood.
Health concerns – Inhaling hexavalent chromium over an extended period of time causes lung and nasal cancers. It also irritates the airways, causes nasal and skin ulcerations and lesions, perforation of the nasal septum, asthma, dermatitis and other allergic reactions. Ingesting hexavalent chromium causes stomach and intestinal damage and can lead to cancer. In lab animals, hexavalent chromium damages sperm and male reproductive systems, and in some cases, has damaged the developing fetus.
In monitoring conducted by the California Department of Public Health, nearly 40 percent of drinking water sources tested in California contained unsafe levels of hex chrome.
The fine stems from a September 2010 EPA complaint that alleged that the company, based in East Windsor, N.J., did not provide its employees with information pertaining to possible health risks associated with exposure to hexavalent chromium.
The company is required to disclose that information under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA argued.
Elementis Chromium did not respond to a request for comment.
In its complaint, the EPA said Elementis did not report the results of a study that documented “significant occupational impacts” to employees in modern chemical plants.
“The violation is that Elementis failed to submit to EPA a study regarding risks to workers from hexavalent chromium exposure at four Elementis facilities,” including the Castle Hayne plant, according to the EPA.
The study, “filled a gap in scientific literature regarding the relationship between hexavalent chromium exposure and respiratory cancer in modern chromium facilities,” according to an EPA news release.
Elementis received the final report “Collaborative Cohort Mortality Study of Four Chromate Production Facilities, 1958-1998” in 2002, according to the EPA’s 2010 complaint.
The study found a significant elevation in lung cancer risk among workers exposed to levels below the regulated standards at the time.
Elementis responded to the complaint, admitting it received the final report Oct. 8, 2002, but denied it did not immediately notify the EPA of the study’s findings, according to legal filings.
The company argued that the report did not provide “new useful” information on the risk of injury from exposure to hexavalent chromium. It also pointed out that Bayer Corp. and Occidental Chemical Corp., two large chromium chemical manufacturers, received the same 2002 report and neither provided it to the EPA.
In a March 25, 2011 judgment, in which Elementis argued the EPA’s complaint barred the statue of limitations, Chief Administrative Law Judge Susan Biro wrote, “the harm from a chemical presenting a substantial risk of injury to health or environment does not dissipate over time. Rather, its continued use, if not by the chemical company with the information, by the others without such information, perhaps under other circumstances and/or without taking the necessary precautionary measures, may spread or increase the risk and/or resultant damage.”
During a December 2011 hearing, both sides presented evidence and expert witnesses to Biro. The judge rendered her decision Nov. 12.
“Our job is to protect all Americans from exposure to harmful chemicals at home, at work and in their daily lives,” Cynthia Giles, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance assistant administrator, said in a statement. “This decision supports our commitment to public health and reinforces the importance of companies providing key information about the risks their chemicals pose.”
The plant in Castle Hayne is one of Elementis Chromium.’s two main manufacturing sites. The other is in Corpus Christi, Tex.
Those plants produce all of the company’s chromium chemical products except chrome sulfate, according to Elementis’ web site.
Chrome sulfate, a chemical used in tanning to make leathers, is produced in some of the company’s other plants. Elementis also makes chromic acid, chromic oxide, chrome hydrate, sodium dichromate and sodium sulfate. A majority of these chemicals are added to coating mixtures and applied to everything from roofing tiles to automobiles.
Workers exposed to high levels of hexavalent chromium can suffer a variety of health effects, including lung cancer, irritation or damage to the nose, throat and lungs, and irritation or damage to the eyes and skin, according to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
OSHA has implemented various standards to protect employees from health hazards association with exposure to the man-man chemical.
Employers must limit their employees’ time to an average of eight hours of exposure in the workplace to five micrograms or less per cubic meter of air.
Chemical manufacturing companies are also required to perform periodic employee monitoring at least every six months, provide appropriate protective clothing and equipment, prohibit employee rotation to reduce the amount of exposure, provide respiratory protection and make available medical examinations to employees within 30 days of initial exposure, to those who are or may be exposed at or above level for 30 days or more a year, and at the end of employment.
The judgment will become a final order 45 days after being issued unless Elementis appeals the decision to the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board.