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April 22, 1998

Making Nickel Safe Again, but for Whom?

by Tom Pullizzi, email

The SFIC has sent me another flyer asking for money to support lobbying and "research". This time to prove that soluble nickel should not be regulated as a carcinogen in the state of California.

I had a few thoughts about the problem that they wish to solve.

1. We, as finishers, have to explain to epidemiologists, as morons, that nickel is not a carcinogen; and to regulators, as morons, that we have enough regulation to protect health and environment now.

Somehow, the letter implies that the state has overlooked something about nickel. Actually, I have been hearing that nickel has carcinogenic effects for years now. I worked with nickel baths, both electrolytic and electroless, and I tell you that I never liked breathing nickel mist, and I don't like to do it now. If you have not been in a plating shop lately, please don't think that we have all solved this ventilation problem. It is not easy to ventilate an open surface tank. It costs money, and requires equipment and maintenance.

Ventilation for worker safety means sending the pollutant up a stack, to be diluted in the atmosphere. Safety of the environment outside of the shop is another subject.

Easily solved, or more difficult, it usually is not a problem to get around regulations.

2. Is it possible that we are right because it would be too expensive to be wrong?

We are funding research to prove that soluble nickel compounds are not carcinogenic. That is like the Red Wine Council funding a study to prove that red wine prevents heart attacks. Or the Caviar Association funding a study to prove that salt in the diet is actually good for digestion. This is "junk science", a phrase I heard a few months ago, and which I define as: "finding the answer you were looking for, no matter how wacky you need to design the experiment".

But if someone drinks more red wine, or eats more caviar, and it doesn't improve their health, that is one thing. If as a nation, we deregulate a carcinogen because of the effort of some highly paid lobbyist and/or research firm, that is something else again.

3. Why don't we get it?

  1. I'd rather label than switch.
    Rather than be in denial, the industry should learn from the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry fought against the idea that tobacco was unhealthy for so long, that they missed the message for years. The labeling of tobacco products as causing injury to your health actually protects the producer. We should welcome labeling our products "Contains Chromium, which has been included in California's list of carcinogenic chemicals". Really, labels are cheap. California won't stop the wheels at the border, they just don't want the chemical plants. Maybe they are right, let some other place get polluted. We just need to get the labels to say the right thing.
  2. Actually, I like the idea that soluble nickel compounds will be listed as "inhaled carcinogens". I wonder what that means as far as owning an open surface tank of nickel plating solution, or owning a bag of nickel chloride?

    I used to have a job where I had to raise the pH of a nickel plating solution with powdered nickel carbonate. You can bet I used to hate that job, it is impossible to prevent getting that dust in your nose, even with dust masks. You would need a full Tygon suit and breathing apparatus to get it right. I don't think we should be handling nickel carbonate with a ladle or shovel. And I was just handling enough for a 50 gallon research tank. What happens when nickel carbonate is used in production plants? I'll tell you, that a lot of it gets into the atmosphere, and out the stack into the neighborhood.
  3. Many of you may not be ready for this, but I recently heard that some group of finishers hired a minority lobbyist to do battle with the regulators. She apparently was sent in to tell the politicians that they were regulating jobs away from minorities. I know, it is hard to believe, but it happened in the last few months. The fact is that most of the workers in electroplating shops are of Hispanic or African American origin. And most of the plating shops are in minority neighborhoods, when they are not in industrial areas. So the business of environmental racism is real.

4. More bad news.

Overheard at the Canadian AESF Regional in Kitchener last week.

Both of these examples indicate, to me, that we will never win this war. It is beyond our reach to compete with the billions spent in research, and the groundswell in support for a healthy environment and workplace for everyone. It is misguided and irresponsible to try to demonstrate that nickel is not a dangerous heavy metal. In the last few years, the metal we always thought of as harmless, has been shown to cause allergic reactions in a large part of the population.

The last paragraph of the letter ends with:

by acting early in this matter, we hope to protect ourselves from the woes suffered by both cadmium and hexavalent chrome (users, producers)

In fact, we are all better off for the regulations on hexavalent chromium and cadmium, and the world has not come to an end for users of these metals. Substitutes for these metals have been success stories, and dismal failures too, but it won't be the end if we need to add nickel to our list of chemicals we don't trust so much to benignly serve us.

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