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Leather facts

Chrome and specific health issues

About this essay

Dr Dietrich Tegtmeyer chairs the research commission of the International Union of Leather Technologists and Chemists Societies (IULTCS) and has written and spoken extensively about the use of chromium in leather production. Dr Tegtmeyer is vice-president for product development and application at the leather business unit of chemical manufacturer Lanxess. Before that, he worked for Bayer, the company from which Lanxess was spun off in 2004.

This essay tackles the following misrepresentations:

MYTH: Any use of chromium in leather production is inherently dangerous for the health of tannery workers and consumers.
FACT: Chrome salts as used in tanneries are safe. It is easy for tanners everywhere to prevent, by following good practice, the formation of any dangerous forms of chromium from forming.
MYTH: It’s not worth the risk, because even a tiny amount of dangerous forms of chromium, such as hexavalent chromium, or chrome VI, can cause damage to people’s health.
FACT: A person would only be at risk by eating more than 35 pairs of affected shoes per day.

Executive summary

Only trivalent chromium compounds are used in leather manufacture and there are no reasonable issues with this chemical in leather. However, a second form of chromium known as hexavalent chromium exists that is known to be toxic to humans and animals. The formation of chromium in the hexavalent state in leather can be readily avoided. Because of persistent confusion between these two forms of chromium, this essay in the Nothing to Hide series focuses specifically on the risks presented by hexavalent chromium.

If there is excessive exposure to any chemical, there is risk of hazard. For example, if taken in excess common table salt can be life threatening: the same applies to essential vitamins, and also chromium, which is an element that is essential for human health.

The lowest level of exposure to any chemical that studies have established as presenting no toxic concern is called NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level). Even if leather contained 10 parts per million of hexavalent chromium, it can be calculated that a person would have to eat 35 pairs of shoes every day to be above the NOAEL value. It should also be stated that hexavalent chromium presents a risk if inhaled.

Four times more people have allergic reactions to gold than to chromium, and instances of allergic reactions to certain food are much higher still. Leather manufactured using chromium compounds has been worn by human beings for more than 100 years. Over and above possible issues of sensitising effects that may affect a few people, from a balanced scientific viewpoint, consumer risks can be excluded.

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