Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chromium VI: A Human Interest Story

Today I taught nomenclature in my introductory chemistry class and I thought of a wonderful human interest story to make type II transition metals (type II ionic compounds)  all the more relevant. Here it is:

Have you ever seen the movie Erin Brockovitch? If you  haven't, I highly recommend that you do. In this 2000 movie starring Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovitch, a local electricity company releases hexavalent chromium (Chromium VI) into the drinking water of a southern California town. The chromium VI compound is used to prevent corrosion at a cheap price. Not just at a cheap monetary price; at the price of the general health of the surrounding population. This happened from the early '50s through the mid '60s. According to the film, Brockovitch took a low-level clerk position at a law firm to pay her bills amid her rather low-class, somewhat promiscuous, borderline-sketchy lifestyle. Initially, her treatment at the firm was very poor.

Whether it was luck, God, general intelligence or a combination of all of these attributes is unknown. However, in her filing and general administrative duties at the law firm she noticed something odd about documents she was given. She noticed several people in a real estate case had family members with severe health problems (cancer, chronic illness and other complications).

One thing led to another and by the end of the film Brockovitch won the largest class-action settlement in US history against PG&E.

Brockovitch did not have a chemistry background and probably did not know what the health ramifications of Chromium VI might be. Can you imagine how much faster her work might have gone if she had known about this?

Today we looked at Chromium is several different oxidation states. Do you know how to figure out the oxidation state of chromium in a type II ionic compound?