Nickel (chemical formula: Ni), is a lustrous silver-white solid metal. It is insoluble in water and occurs most commonly in iron and nickel sulfides, such as pentlandite, millertie, nickeline and nickel galena. A large portion of the nickel on earth arrived in meteorites. Australia and Indonesia have the biggest reserves of nickel with about 45% of the world’s supply, with Canada and Russia also being major producers.
Most nickel (about 90%) is used in alloys for producing; stainless steel, nickel/copper based alloys and alloy steels. The nickel combined with other metals, results in a new material that is strong, resistant to corrosion and heat, and magnetic. These new metals then go onto make products such as; steel basins, glass, cutlery, cooking utensils, whitegoods, electronics and space applications.
Nickel also has major use in the production of many rechargeable batteries, including those found in electric cars, as well as in coins (the American five cent coin is nicknamed a “nickel” for a reason!).
The routes of exposure for nickel include; inhalation, ingestion and skin and eye contact.
Nickel is not thought to produce respiratory irritation normally, however, inhalation of dusts or fumes may still produce respiratory discomfort and distress. Regular exposure to nickel oxide fumes may lead to “metal fume fever”, which is a respiratory tract condition that resembles the flu. Symptoms of this include; malaise, fever, weakness and nausea and may appear quickly if ventilation in the area is poor.
Ingestion of nickel may be damaging to the health of the individual. It is poorly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. Most of the nickel will leave your body (through urine) in 4-5 days.
Skin contact with nickel is not thought to be a skin irritant, however abrasive damage may result from prolonged exposure. Other harmful effects may result upon entry into the bloodstream through open cuts or wounds.
Direct eye contact with nickel may produce tearing and redness. Slight abrasive damage may also result.
If inhaled, remove the patient from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. Encourage the patient to blow their nose and lay them down and keep them warm and rested. If the patient is not breathing and you are qualified to do so, perform CPR. Seek medical attention.
If swallowed, do not induce vomiting. If vomiting does occur, lean the patient forward or place them on their left side to maintain open airways and prevent aspiration. Give them water to rinse their mouth out and provide as much as they can comfortably drink. Seek medical attention.
If skin exposure occurs, immediately remove all contaminated clothing, footwear and accessories and cleanse the affected area with plenty of water and soap. Seek medical attention in the event of irritation.
If the chemical is exposed to the eyes, flush the eyes out immediately with fresh running water, remembering to wash under the eyelids. Removal of contact lenses should only be done by a skilled individual. Do not attempt to remove any particles attached to or embedded in the eye. Seek urgent medical attention.
Emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and adequate ventilation should be available (a local exhaust should be installed if necessary).
The PPE recommended when handling nickel includes; safety glasses with side shields, chemical goggles, gloves (thickness >0.35mm is recommended), overalls, PVC aprons, protective suits and boots.