||The Gem and Jewelry World's Foremost Resource on The Internet.|
Brain Press Publications
Metals Safety Information
Interested in obtaining the Brain
Press book on safety in the jewelry studio?
Goldsmiths work with metals. Our bodies react to metals, their dusts, salts and oxides. The metals that jewelers come in contact with include gold, copper, silver, zinc, iron, steel, platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, titanium, niobium, aluminum and ones that we should consider not having around any more at all in the workshop: nickel, lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, cadmium, arsenic, antimony, manganese and beryllium. Alloys contain more than one metal, brass for instance, contains up to 35% zinc, the rest is copper.
Besides touching them, the most common ways we contact and encounter metals are as compounds (often salts or oxides), in patinas, cleaning, pickling, enamels, by-products of heating or chemical reactions in the course of working in the jewelry shop. The addition of heat to metals, as when we solder, anneal or melt, accelerates chemical and physical reactions of all kinds, and causes some reactions that do not occur at room temperature (Stellman and Daum 275).
We need certain amounts of most metals in our bodies-but not too little or too much. Metals have "concentration windows": that means that too little contact may be damaging, and too much may be really damaging. The exposure window can be very small in some cases-it is easy to have too much contact with some metals. Exposure to multiple metals can result in interactions between them, which causes greater damage than exposure to a single metal alone. An example is the interaction of cadmium and zinc, or the ability of lead to displace calcium in the body, and thus affect the nervous system (Waldron 13). I have heard several anecdotes of metal toxicity among jewelers (who ate, drank and smoked cigarettes in their studios). The metals mentioned included antimony, aluminum, palladium, gold and silver (thought to interfere with selenium absorption). The metals appear to have built up in their bodies over a long period of time. Our literature search didn't turn up much information about such metal toxicity in jewelers and I would advise you to talk to your doctor about it for current information. Pre-existing medical conditions might in several of these cases have made the individuals more susceptible to metal absorption.
Self-dosing of metals in the form of supplements can be a concern; there have been several cases of chrome poisoning from this. Have a look at what you are consciously ingesting as well.
Again, you are exposed to metals by touching them, by breathing or ingesting their oxides, salts and dusts and, at higher temperatures, their fumes. Metal fume fever is a real hazard with molten metals. Zinc, copper, magnesium, aluminum, copper, antimony, cadmium, iron and silver can cause metal fume fever.
The following metals have been linked with liver damage: antimony, arsine, beryllium, bismuth, cadmium, manganese and selenium (Stellman and Daum 39) as well as indium which can hurt your kidneys too, irritate and permanently damage your lungs and probably affect your fetus if you are pregnant (NJDH).
Sometimes people react to jewelry they are wearing. Cosmetics use exacerbates the effects of a metal on the skin. A study was done with almost 1000 metal-intolerant patients. All were patch-tested with nickel sulfate and wore metal washers as a neckpiece. "63% reacted to nickel sulfate (patch test), 50% reacted to the nickel washer, 8% to the nickel-palladium washer, 13% to the copper washer, 7% to the brass washer, 4% to the bronze or palladium washers, 2% to gold and none to iron" (Veien 86). So it looks like iron might be the best material for jewelry in terms of metal tolerance. That should make the blacksmiths happy.
The worst metals to have around, as metals and in alloys and salts, include cadmium, nickel, chromium, antimony, arsenic, and beryllium
Metal fume fever can be a hazard and chemical pneumonia can happen to people smelting aluminum (Tver and Anderson 2). Melting aluminum requires good ventilation.
One of my students is anemic and when working with aluminum for a project was diagnosed by her doctor and specialists as saturated with aluminum, to toxic levels. I had never heard of this, nor did others in the class suffer in the same way and the thought is that perhaps her anemia made her more susceptible.
It is a strong carcinogen and the rule with such things is: no exposure level is safe. Got that? No level of exposure to carcinogens is considered truly safe. So, no cadmium-containing materials should be allowed in your shop. Ask for MSDS sheets on your material and consider trashing the great deal on solder sheet or wire you got from an old lapidary club member some years ago (Waldron 23-26). Cadmium accumulates in the body, and with a half-life of 30 years can build up quickly to acute toxic levels if you are repeatedly exposed to it. About one third of the stored cadmium remains in the kidneys (Wedeen 256).
Basically don't mess with it at all as a jeweler. If you have to use mercury, use it only in a university-level chemical lab with lots of understanding of its effects.
Ramazzini talks of the dangers of mercury poisoning a great deal, with goldsmiths and gilders being prime sufferers of the effects: "Craftsmen of this sort very soon become subject to vertigo, asthma and paralysis. Very few of them reach old age, and even if they do not die young their health is so terribly undermined that they pray for death. Palsy of the neck and hands, loss of teeth, uncertain gait..." (34). He goes on to describe numerous case studies of the effects of mercury. The details of their deaths are so repulsive that it really puts one off any desire to work with the stuff. And while I have in the past, I would not do so now without stringent precautions and the right equipment.
Miners of all metals in Ramazzini's time were usually condemned prisoners and life was short. One of the worst mines to be sentenced to was a mercury mine. One man, sentenced for six months became "so impregnated with mercury that if he held a bit of copper to his lips or handled it, it turned white" (Ramazzini 22).
Mercury was once used as a cure for syphilis. It was rubbed daily into the skin of the syphilitic patient. Eventually their toxicity built up so high that the syphilis germs were killed and they were "cured." Of course, they had to live with the effects of mercury poisoning...
"Early symptoms of [mercury] absorption are psychic and emotional disturbances. Symptoms can progress to tremors, kidney disease, and nerve degeneration" (Rossol 143). McCann gives the following symptoms for acute mercury poisoning: "a metallic taste, excessive salivation, swelling of the gums and mouth, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, possible kidney failure, and, in case of inhalation, possible bronchitis and pneumonia" (McCann, AB! 444). Chronic poisoning, where the mercury builds up in your system over time, eventually produces the same symptoms, but also affects your central nervous system, which in turn leads to "muscular tremors, irritability, and psychological changes (depression, loss of memory, frequent anger, and indecision)" (McCann, AB! 444).
Nickel fumes are a proven carcinogen, and one of the principles of dealing with carcinogens is that no amount of exposure is safe (Tver and Anderson 258). Studies in different countries show an excess risk of nasal sinus, lung and larynx cancer in nickel refinery workers, though this risk is not noted as being higher for metal workers working outside refineries (Waldron 34). When proper ventilation and masks were issued to the nickel refinery workers, those who had been employed after the changes showed no more tendency to get cancer than the general population (Frank 78).
In 1999 in North America, it is still normal for jewelers to alloy their own nickel white gold with a commercially supplied pre-alloy containing nickel. This practice is, in my opinion, unsafe, and at some point will be unacceptable. Occupations involving nickel fume exposure include electroplater, enameler, jeweler and metalworker (Veien 88).
As well as being a carcinogen in the form of fumes from the melt (and reticulation if working with nickel silver), nickel is proven to be one of "the most potent" of skin sensitizers: that is, contact with the metal (as in jewelry) or its salts can cause various kinds of dermatitis and make one more susceptible to developing allergies to other metals. Waldron writes, "All those who handle nickel or its salts are liable to be at risk" (34). Dermatologists identify nickel as the most frequently occurring contact allergen-most people with contact dermatitis are reacting to nickel (Veien 81). Its dusts and filings are hazardous. Nickel salts are commonly used in electroplating. Nickel carbonyl has been used in the past for molds. It causes acute respiratory problems and cancer of the lung and nose (Waller 47).
Increasing allergies to nickel and other metals have been noted in Europe and North America in recent years-even to silver and gold. As a result, Europe and Japan are banning most nickel alloys (including nickel white gold), which will affect the ability of US manufacturers to export their jewelry. The reason that refiners in North America make nickel white gold is to make more profit; it costs less than palladium white gold to manufacture. This will no doubt change as North American manufacturers find their products barred from the European and Japanese markets. An interesting note is that many coins are made from nickel silver (an alloy usually made of copper and nickel). People therefore may have a fair bit of skin contact with nickel, and cases of contact dermatitis among people handling coins have been noted. About 10% of adult women show signs of nickel allergy (Veien 89). Many nickel-sensitive women work in cleaning jobs or are hairdressers. Exposure to cleaning compounds and wet work seems to be a factor in developing nickel allergies (Veien 91).
Nickel is found in much stainless steel, and this is used in fashion earring posts. Pierced ears have been identified as a major cause of nickel sensitization (Veien 84). Dentists recommend not having children's ears pierced until all orthodontic work has been finished, to help avoid nickel allergies later in life (some new orthodontic procedures use titanium, both for strength and to avoid contact with stainless steel that contains nickel). Other concerns include body-piercing jewelry as a cause of nickel allergy. Sweat and household detergents can release nickel from stainless steel in quantities sufficient to cause dermatitis (Veien 85).
Some body piercers use kitchen-grade stainless steel, which contains a great deal of nickel. This is unacceptable. Only surgical steel should be used and even that has been linked to metal allergies. Even tiny traces of nickel (from the manufacturing process) found on niobium wires used for body piercing have caused importation problems into Europe under new regulations.
Nickel allergy lasts pretty much forever; in one study all 100 nickel-sensitive patients were still sensitive when tested 10 years after the initial positive patch tests (Veien 84).
Another, and perhaps more troubling, source of contact (and possibly a contributor to the increasing allergies to nickel and other metals noted in the population) is the use of finely divided nickel as a catalyst in hydrogenating oils (Waldron 33). Anyone eating processed foods (most processed foods contain hydrogenated oils-check your labels) is then apparently exposed to nickel through this route. However, having spoken with the head of a company which makes hydrogenated oils, it appears that there is no detectable nickel in the oil that particular company produces-that is, not above 0.5 parts per million. According to the nickel MSDS, children may drink a maximum of 0.04 milligrams of nickel a day in water. This is far above any hypothetical amount left in the oil by the company I spoke with, but there is still some concern in my mind in this regard.
Platinum and Platinum Group Metals
Scrap and Found Metals
Silver does possess certain bactericidal characteristics. It is used to plate the insides of milk collection vats (it keeps bacteria growth down) and Alexander the Great, while traveling with his army, would only drink water from his silver helmet which had been sitting overnight-there are some suggestions that this may help purify water.
Silver is often dissolved with cyanides in plating solutions-which presents cyanide hazards. Silver is alloyed with gold, copper, zinc and other metals. Older silver solder alloys contained cadmium as well. For this reason, don't use old solder without excellent ventilation. Goldsmiths used to use silver amalgams with mercury for silvering objects - this is now an unacceptable procedure.
Titanium and the Reactive Metals
Bill Seeley of Reactive Metals says that titanium dusts produced by filing and sanding are dangerous in the same way that talc is, basically as particulate matter and dust that can be inhaled. He knows of no other toxicity problem (Bill Seeley, personal communication, 12/18/96). I would suggest using local ventilation or an appropriate dust mask. Even better, work wet in some manner to keep the dust down, and damp-mop dusts.
Titanium powder can burn like magnesium if given enough oxygen. It is hard to do this but I mention it. I did hear a story about someone who had a meltdown on their miniature lathe when the thin shavings being produced ignited. An engineer who was a student of mine, Hale Sweeny, wrote to say that he had actually managed to set his titanium afire when trying to ball up a wire in the same way that one does with a silver one. He writes: "Imagine my surprise when the wire started burning just like a magnesium fire!!! Quickly dunked it in a pot of water, and gave up the idea of having balled-end pistels in my titanium flower! So you CAN make it catch on fire, if you work at it!" (Hale Sweeny, personal communication, 12/20/96). Power sanding and grinding operations are a potential place for this to occur as well.
All rights reserved internationally. Copyright © Charles Lewton-Brain. Users have permission to download the information and share it as long as no money is made-no commercial use of this information is allowed without permission in writing from Charles Lewton-Brain.
|Interested in obtaining the Brain Press book on safety in the jewelry studio?