Skip to main content

Table 1 Chromium pollution from tannery industries—a case study

From: Metal(loid) speciation and transformation by aerobic methanotrophs

Tannery industries contribute significiantly to the developing economies such as India and Bangladesh (~3.5 and 5 billion USD per annum, respectively). Leather production utilises a large amount of water. It has been estimated that about 25–40m3 of fresh/ground water resources is used and subsequently discharged into the environment as effluent during the processing of one tonne of hides. Tannery effluents generally contain high levels of organics (measured as biological/chemical oxygen demand), nitrogen, sulphate and heavy metals such as Cr, Ni, As and Co. Tanneries have been the subject of wide public debate, particularly the downstream pollution by carcinogenic and teratogenic Cr (VI) that leaches into water bodies and soil and its subsequent impact on ecosystem health. For example, the Vellore district in South India is a well-known tannery hub that is famous for its export of leather [12]. Extensive surveys on tannery-associated groundwater contamination have revealed that toxic Cr (VI) can be detected (even at a depth of 10 m) at a high concentration up to 38 mg L-1 (critical limit 0.05 mg L-1 [13];) in the Ranipet, Walajapet and Vaniambadi areas of the Vellore district. This is extremely high compared to levels reported in other parts of India (4–7 mg L-1) [14].
Chromium pollution from tanneries extends to soil e.g. about 50,000 ha of agricultural land has been affected due to salts and chromium from the tannery waste streams. Concentrations of exchangeable Cr fractions have been reported up to 128 μg kg-1. Research in sites dumped with tannery wastes over the past 20 years in Vellore and surrounding regions has indicated that soil alkalinity facilitates the presence of the more toxic and mobile Cr (VI) that subsequently leaches into the groundwater. Alarming levels of Cr were also found in borewell waters in Palar river basin (>500 μg Cr L-1), 90% of which was Cr(VI) [15]. In highly contaminated zones, the total Cr was reported to be as high as 102 g Cr kg-1 soil and has been found even at soil depth of 30 cm (1.1 mg Cr(VI) kg-1 [16, 17]. While tanneries use Cr(III) salts for leather processing, the presence of Cr(VI) in the contaminated sites is still an intriguing question. Contrary to the general acceptance that the presence of organic matter and other species contributing to electron transfer reactions in soil would rapidly convert Cr(VI) to Cr(III), these soils showed higher levels of Cr(VI) despite high-soil organic content (15%) [16]. It has also been reported that high concentrations of sodium and phosphates in soil solution can also trigger Cr (VI) mobility in soils with alkaline pH [18]. In addition manganese oxides are reported to reoxidise Cr(III) to Cr(VI) [19]. While tanners are replacing tannins instead of chromium, remediation of Cr(VI) in long-term contaminated soils have not been successful owing to reoxidation of Cr(III) to Cr(VI) [20] and continue to be an major issue.