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April 22, 1998
Making Nickel Safe Again, but for Whom?
by Tom Pullizzi, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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.
- I recently visited a house that plates semi-bright nickel. My
clothes smelled of coumarin for two weeks. I had thought that
courmarin was eliminated from proprietary baths for years because
of suspected health effects.This plant would have needed a mighty
ventilation system to solve this problem.
- Not too many years ago, we had a vent from a coil coating line
spewing alkaline cleaner up and out of the stack onto the ground
outside the plant. This has been against regulations for years.
This problem could have been easily solved with mist eliminators
and a better design of the hood.
- A captive plating shop uses formaldehyde as a plating
additive. The smell was so strong, I had to leave the room to
catch my breath. Formaldehyde has been a bad actor for years, yet
is still in use without ventilation. Proper ventilation would have
at least diluted the problem at the shop floor.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The auto industry is searching for a replacement for yellow
chromated zinc parts because of a higher incidence of skin cancer
among workers who handle the finished parts. I am not talking
about workers who work in the plating shop, I am talking about the
assembly workers in the auto plants! What could that possibly
mean for people who work around chromating solutions?
- After a talk about ISO14000 (Environmental quality program)
implementation, the floor was opened for questions from the
audience. The first question and answer was as follows:
"Has XYZ plating company, as part of its ISO 14000 documentation,
examined the estrogenic effects of some of the chemicals released
to the environment?"
"(repeats question verbatim)"
"Excuse me?" then "I don't understand, could you give an
"Well, you know, like recently, some studies have shown that
industrial pollutants released into a stream had estrogenic
effects on the fish population, causing the population to become
all male or all female."
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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