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Chromium toxicity refers to the adverse effects excessive amounts of chromium can have on a person's system. Of the types of chromium easily accessible in the modern environment, hexavalent chromium is considered the most toxic and harmful to humans. Exposure to hexavalent chromium can seriously damage the respiratory tract and increases the risk of cancer. Another common form of chromium, trivalent chromium, is significantly less toxic, and most often causes skin irritation at most. High concentrations, however, possess significantly more serious effects of chromium toxicity and can cause DNA damage in an individual.
Despite the dangers of chromium toxicity, the metal itself poses no risk to the human body. Metallic chromium is used to create stainless steel alloys used in everyday items such as dining utensils. Creating chrome plating, however, can result in the formation of harmful hexavalent chromium, which can infect water supplies as industrial waste. Hexavalent chromium is the primary cause of most cases of chromium toxicity.
Short-term exposure to hexavalent chromium can irritate nasal passageways and skin, systemic poisoning, and damage to internal organs, particularly the liver and kidney. Prolonged exposure tends to create ulcers in the nasal septum, eventually perforating it and causing serious damage to the respiratory system. Victims of chromium toxicity can develop asthma. Hexavalent chromium can also burn the skin if not immediately removed, as well as delay the healing process.
Ingestion of hexavalent chromium eventually causes liver and kidney function to shut down, which can lead to death. In instances where an individual's eyes are exposed to chromium, the organs can suffer irreparable damage, resulting in blindness. In severe cases of chromium toxicity, exposure to the substance can lead to the development of cancer.
Trivalent chromium, on the other hand, is a naturally-occurring substance that offers a number of health benefits in certain amounts. The mineral plays a role in sugar and fat metabolism and is considered essential for proper bodily function. Chromium deficiency can result in severe weight loss, neurological damage, and a lower tolerance for glucose. In order to treat the condition and prevent it from developing, doctors often prescribe chromium supplements.
Research has shown, however, that a chromium overdose can also have toxic effects on the system. Elevated levels of trivalent chromium in human cells can damage the cell's genetic structure, causing a great number of potential health risks to the patient. Experts recommend that all patients consult a doctor before supplementing with chromium.