Hexavalent chrome: threshold concept for carcinogenicity

Biomed Environ Sci. 1990 Mar;3(1):20-34.


Certain hexavalent chromium (Cr6+) compounds when administered via inhalation at high doses have the potential to induce lung tumors in humans and experimental animals. Trivalent chromium (Cr3+) is an essential human and animal nutrient at levels of 50 to 200 micrograms/day. Recent data have shown that the human body is able to reduce Cr6+ to Cr3+. This reduction occurs in bodily fluids such as gastric juice, epithelial lining fluid of the respiratory tract, blood, and other fluids. Secondary reduction occurs at the cellular level by the cytosol, mitochondria, and microsomes. Thus, at low levels of exposure hexavalent chromium ions are reduced before the 6+ ions can interact with DNA unless the dose is sufficient to overwhelm the body's reduction capacity. This paper summarizes the available data concerning the reducing ability of the body and formulates the steps in the mechanism of cancer induction. These steps include: (1) only certain Cr6+ compounds have the capacity to interact with cellular components; (2) Cr6+ is reduced by body fluids and excess Cr6+ enters the cell (Cr3+ is poorly absorbed across membranes); (3) cellular organelles and the cytoplasm reduce Cr6+ to Cr3+; (4) excess Cr6+ can enter the nucleus; (5) Cr6+ reduction through 5+ and 4+ to 3+ has a potential to interact with the DNA molecule; and (6) if unrepaired, this DNA damage can lead to cancer induction. On the basis of current evidence Cr6+ has a threshold for carcinogenic potential in humans that is greater than the current TLV.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogens*
  • Chromium / metabolism
  • Chromium / toxicity*
  • Chromium Isotopes
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Oxidation-Reduction


  • Carcinogens
  • Chromium Isotopes
  • Chromium