You probably think of nickel as a coin that doesn’t buy much or as a metal used to make jewelry more cheaply.
To the estimated 10 per cent of the population allergic to the metal, however, nickel is a cause of itching, rashes and pain. And for those over-exposed to nickel in the industrial workplace, it can be a source of cancer.
Nickel occurs in nature as an element. A silver-colored metal, its chemical name is Ni. Mined from ore and recovered from scrap metal, nickel is used widely in alloys with other metals to manufacture consumer products. It is also part of several hazardous chemical compounds used in industry.
Nickel is contained in countless everyday products such as belt buckles, buttons, kitchen utensils, appliances, glasses frames, wristwatches, table flatware, doorknobs, cupboard handles, tools and scissors. Nickel is added to all jewelry to make it harder. Less expensive jewelry is heavy on the nickel and light on the gold, causing greater exposure to nickel. In stainless steel the nickel is enclosed and does not contact human skin.
Nickel is the most common cause of occupational allergic dermatitis. Workers who handle items containing nickel can develop the allergy from over-exposure. Moisture increases the possibility of nickel leaching from the metal onto the skin, so handling metal items in water or when hands are sweaty can increase contact.
Once a serious allergy develops, hairdressers can no longer work with metal scissors, restaurant staff can no longer touch metal tableware and carpenters can no longer use their tools. For some this allergy has meant the end of a career and the start of years avoiding contact with the most common of items.
Inhalation of nickel and nickel compounds in an industrial workplace can cause lung and nasal cancer. Symptoms of exposure include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, pain, coughing, weakness, delirium and cumulative lung damage.
For most of us, though, nickel problems are confined to a rash from jewelry. Nickel allergies are on the rise because of the increased popularity of body piercing. Women are more likely to have nickel allergies than are men, possibly because they wear more jewelry.
If you have signs of a nickel allergy, reduce your exposure so the problem does not get worse. Look for stainless steel and better-quality jewelry. Avoid the combination of water and metal objects containing metal. Use waterproof gloves when doing wet work. In jobs where inhalation of nickel and nickel compounds is a possibility, use the required respiratory protection and all other precautions to avoid exposure.
Nickel allergies and lung disorders are examples of too much of a good thing. Nickel is an extremely useful material, but in excess quantities under certain conditions it can cause great suffering.