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Nickel in the Environment and Health.


Chemistry

Sources

Health effects 

Risk reduction 

 

Chemistry

Note: this file is currently being revised. 

Nickel is a ferromagnetic transition metal sharing many properties in common with iron and cobalt. Nickel 

     
  • occurs naturally in the earth's crust, in various forms such as nickel sulphides and oxides 
  • generally resistant to corrosion especially in alloys- 
  • therefore it is used in metal alloys e.g. stainless steeel and in various electroplating processes 
 
 

Sources of exposure:

Occupational exposures may arise in:

  • nickel miners, smelters and refiners 
  • nickel alloy manufacturers
  • nickel platers
  • exposure to alloys e.g. in coinage
The following image shows a large industrial building within which nickel refining took place:   

Environmental exposures may arise from 

  • nickel-containing alloys - such as in coinage in various forms of 'costume' or 'fashion' jewellery
  • Soil/dust near nickel industries, 

Hobbies and Related Activities 

  • Metal working with nickel alloys
 

Health effects

  • Note: The health effects are highly dependent on the manner and degree of exposure and on the exact chemical 'species' in which the nickel atoms are present.The allergic effects tend to arise from the Nickel cation Ni++, but it is not entirely clear which chemical species is reponsible for the carcinogenic effects noted much more commonly in the past. It is probable that a complex subsulphide may have been responsible although high concentrations of soluble salts of nickel may have been important too. 

Health Effects include

  • Allergy of the skin to nickel - resulting in dermatitis. The following image shows a case of nickel eczema (dermatitis).
  • Allergy of the lung to nickel - resulting in asthma
  • In certain circumstances of exposure in refining, there may be a risk of cancer of the paranasal sinuses (close to the nose) and of cancer of the lung. This risk has now probably been completely removed in most modern plants.
  • Nickel tetracarbonyl - an intermediate in the Mond process for refining nickel is very toxic to the lungs and heart.
 

Risk reduction

Note the following problems especially: 
     
  • In refining - where there have been high exposures to complex nickel compounds - and these could still be problematic unless adequately controlled.
  • The widespread use of nickel containing alloys in direct contact with the human body in items of clothing and personal adornment, as well as in coinage.

Examples of Preventive Measures - avoiding hazards, and reducing risks

  • There have been significant improvements in the refining processes in the developed world by way of steps to reduce exposure.
  • More widely steps should be taken to reduce exposure to nickel cations by direct contact - either through reduction in nickel content of alloys or in the use of alloys which are less likely to leach nickel following skin exposure.
 

Internet References: