April 1993

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about nickel. For more information, you may call 404- 639-6000. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.

SUMMARY: Exposure to nickel happens mostly from breathing air in the workplace air or at waste sites, or skin contact with alloys. Higher levels of nickel cause lung disease and death. Nickel has been found in at least 648 of 1,300 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

What is nickel?
(Pronounced nik' el)

Nickel is a naturally-occurring, hard, silvery white metal. It is the 24th most abundant mineral in the earth's crust and can be found in all soils.

Nickel combines with other metals to form mixtures called alloys. The most common nickel alloy is nickel-iron which is used to make stainless steel. Other nickel alloys are used to make coins, jewelry, plumbing and heating equipment, gas-turbine engines, and electrodes.

Nickel also forms compounds with chlorine, sulfur, and oxygen. These compounds have no characteristic odor or taste. Many dissolve easily in water and have a characteristic green color. Nickel compounds are used for nickel plating, to color ceramics, and to make some batteries. They also act as catalysts to increase the rate of chemical reactions.

What happens to nickel when it enters the environment?

How might I be exposed to nickel?

How can nickel affect my health?

Small amounts of nickel have been shown to be essential to animal health. Nickel may also be essential for human health, however, no cases of nickel deficiency in humans has ever been reported. Although small amounts may be essential, breathing, ingesting, or skin contact with high levels of nickel can harm your health.

Workers who breathed high levels of nickel had higher death rates from lung diseases. Cancer of the lung and nasal sinus are the most serious effects from long term exposures. Effects on the heart, blood, and kidneys, and skin rashes are also found. The levels of nickel in these studies were much higher than most people's exposure.

Ingesting nickel can also be harmful. A child died of heart failure after accidentally eating 20,360 parts of nickel per million parts of a nickel compound (20,360 ppm). Workers drinking nickel contaminated-water from a fountain (250 ppm) had stomach aches, increased number of red blood cells, and kidney damage.

The most common health effects from nickel exposure in the general population are skin allergies. Nickel can stimulate an allergic response in skin including skin rashes or asthma. Sensitive people may have a skin rash return if they later ingest nickel.

It is not known whether eating or breathing nickel will affect reproduction or cause birth defects in humans.

How likely is nickel to cause cancer?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that nickel and certain nickel compounds may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens. The ability of some nickel compounds to cause nasal and lung cancers when inhaled has been well documented in workers. Animal studies support these findings.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to nickel?

Tests are routinely available to measure nickel in the urine, feces, and blood. They must be performed soon after exposure. The amount of nickel in your feces and urine indicates your exposure to nickel. Exposures from water soluble nickel compounds are easier to determine than from water insoluble compounds. These tests don't predict the potential health effects from exposure to nickel.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that long-term exposure to 0.02 milligrams of nickel per kilogram of body weight per day (0.02 mg/kg/day) in food or drinking water is safe for humans. This value is for nickel compounds that dissolve easily in water. EPA requires industry to report a spill of more than 100 pounds of nickel compounds that dissolve easily in water.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) have both set the occupational exposure limit for an 8- hour workday, 40-hour workweek at 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter (0.1 mg/m³) for nickel compounds that dissolve easily in water.


Substance that can cause cancer.
Taking food or drink into your body.
Nasal sinus:
The air cavities in the nose.
Milligram (mg):
One thousandth of a gram.
Parts per million.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1993. Toxicological profile for nickel. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.

Where can I get more information?

ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.

For more information, contact:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 404-639-6000
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Public Health Service
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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