Hexavalent chromium may not be a household name for most, but for those in the aerospace and military industries, it’s hard to avoid. The specialized parts and equipment used in each of these industries require special coatings to ensure performance and longevity. However, an unfortunate side effect of these compounds is that many of them contain highly toxic materials — some of which were only discovered after being in use for many years.
Though its harmful effects are well documented, one of the most widely-used of these hazardous but effective coatings is hexavalent chromium (Cr-(VI)), or hex chrome, for short. While safety regulations and protective gear have improved for operators who deal with hex chrome, the task of removing the hazardous coating can still be dangerous to those involved — even life-threatening. Fortunately, laser cleaning has provided a much-needed advance for the safe removal of hexavalent chromium.
WHAT IS HEXAVALENT CHROMIUM?
Hexavalent chromium is a powerful anti-corrosive agent used in a variety of paints, primers, and coatings. It’s commonly used for metal finishing, especially for aluminum and steel parts, which are otherwise susceptible to rust. In the aerospace industry, chromate compounds are nearly ubiquitous in order to prevent corrosion on aluminum aircraft parts. It’s also found frequently in military applications since equipment is constantly under the duress of extreme conditions.
Because of its known toxicity, hexavalent chromium is one of the most heavily regulated chemicals in the United States. In recent years, the Department of Defense has sought to limit the use of hex chrome and to create strict safety measures for its application and removal, but a lack of viable alternatives has kept it in common usage.
HAZARDS OF HEXAVALENT CHROMIUM
Inhalation or ingestion of hexavalent chromium can have serious adverse effects, including respiratory complications, skin conditions, gastrointestinal issues, and even cancer. Most famously, more than 600 Californians were exposed to toxic levels of hex chrome in their drinking water, which led to a $333 million legal settlement in 1993 and even inspired the movie, Erin Brockovich. More recently, a dozen members of the National Guard who were exposed to hex chrome were awarded more than $85 million collectively for damages.
For more information concerning the health risks of hexavalent chromium exposure, visit the websites of the Center of Disease Control (CDC) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. For military policy and guidelines, consult the Army Public Health Center.
LASER CLEANING: A SAFE WAY TO REMOVE HEXAVALENT CHROMIUM COATINGS
Those who are tasked with removing chromate-based coatings are at the highest risk of toxic exposure. Traditional cleaning methods, which involve media blasting, abrasives, or solvents, are powerful enough to remove the coatings, but they also contaminate the environment — putting operators at further risk of exposure — and are expensive to remove and dispose of properly.
Laser cleaning, on the other hand, provides a safer alternative to these techniques. Not only is it more precise, the intensity of the light pulses effectively converts hexavalent chromium into non-hazardous valances (like trivalent chromium (Cr III)). With an integrated vacuum and built-in filtration systems, laser cleaners also remove waste and any harmful byproducts during the coating removal process.
As long as chromate coatings remain in wide circulation and usage, having a cleaning solution that can capture the toxins easily and protect both workers and the surrounding environment is crucial — it can literally save lives. And given the history of lawsuits connected with hexavalent chromium exposure, it can also save a lot of money in potential damages.
WHATEVER YOUR NEEDS, ADAPT LASER HAS A SOLUTION FOR IT
Adapt Laser specializes in the know-how and application of laser cleaning solutions. We offer products with a range between 20 and 2,000 watts and provide training to ensure your employees can get the most from their laser cleaning solutions. We’ve equipped a variety of industries and companies with laser cleaning solutions — including military and defense for the US Air Force and Navy — and hundreds of organizations trust our state-of-the-art laser cleaning solutions.