CDC Facts

INFORMATION FROM THE CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL (CDC)

Nickel is a naturally occurring element. Pure nickel is a hard, silvery-white metal used to make stainless steel and other metal alloys. Skin effects are the most common effects in people who are sensitive to nickel. Workers who breathed very large amounts of nickel compounds developed chronic bronchitis and lung and nasal sinus cancers.

Pure nickel is a hard, silvery-white metal. Nickel can be combined with other metals, such as iron, copper, chromium, and zinc, to form alloys. These alloys are used to make coins, jewelry, and items such as valves and heat exchangers. Most nickel is used to make stainless steel.

Nickel is found in all soil and is emitted from volcanoes. Nickel is also found in meteorites and on the ocean floor. Nickel and its compounds have no characteristic odor or taste. Nickel is found in smoke.

  • Nickel is released into the atmosphere by industries that make or use nickel, nickel alloys, or nickel compounds. It is also released into the atmosphere by oil-burning power plants, coal-burning power plants, and trash incinerators.
  • In the air, it attaches to small particles of dust that settle to the ground or are taken out of the air in rain or snow; this usually takes many days.
  • Nickel released in industrial waste-water ends up in soil or sediment where it strongly attaches to particles containing iron or manganese.
  • Nickel does not appear to accumulate in fish or in other animals used as food.

Health Effects

The most common harmful health effect of nickel in humans is an allergic reaction. Approximately 10-20% of the population is sensitive to nickel. People can become sensitive to nickel when jewelry or other things containing it are in direct contact with the skin for a long time. Once a person is sensitized to nickel, further contact with the metal may produce a reaction. The most common reaction is a skin rash at the site of contact. The skin rash may also occur at a site away from the site of contact. Less frequently, some people who are sensitive to nickel have asthma attacks following exposure to nickel. Some sensitized people react when they consume food or water containing nickel or breathe dust containing it.

People working in nickel refineries or nickel-processing plants have experienced chronic bronchitis and reduced lung function. These persons breathed amounts of nickel much higher than levels found normally in the environment. Workers who drank water containing high amounts of nickel had stomach ache and suffered adverse effects to their blood and kidneys.

Damage to the lung and nasal cavity has been observed in rats and mice breathing nickel compounds. Eating or drinking large amounts of nickel has caused lung disease in dogs and rats and has affected the stomach, blood, liver, kidneys, and immune system in rats and mice, as well as their reproduction and development.

DIAGNOSTICS:

Nickel can be measured in blood, feces, and urine. More nickel was measured in the urine of workers who were exposed to nickel compounds that dissolve easily in water than in the urine of workers exposed to nickel compounds that are hard to dissolve. This means that it is easier to tell if you have been exposed to soluble nickel compounds than less-soluble compounds.

The EPA recommends that drinking water should contain no more than 0.1 milligrams of nickel per liter of water (0.1 mg/L).

Reference:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2005. Toxicological Profile for Nickel (Update). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Public Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.