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Acute nickel toxicity in electroplating workers who accidently ingested a solution of nickel sulfate and nickel chloride.

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American Journal of Industrial Medicine 14:257-266 (1988)
Acute Nickel Toxicity in Electroplating Workers Who
Accidently Ingested a Solution of Nickel Sulfate and
Nickel Chloride
F. William Sunderman, Jr., MD, Brian Dingle, MD, Sidney M. Hopfer, PhD,
and Thomas Swift, PhD
Thirty-two workers in an electroplating plant accidently drank water contaminated with
nickel sulfate and chloride (1.63 g Ni/liter). Twenty workers promptly developed
symptoms (e.g., nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, giddiness, lassitude, headache, cough, shortness of breath) that typically lasted a few hours but
persisted 1-2 days in 7 cases. The Ni doses in workers with symptoms were estimated
to range from 0.5 to 2.5 g. In 15 exposed workers who were tested on day 1
postexposure, serum Ni concentrations ranged from 13 to 1,340 p,g/liter and urine Ni
concentrations ranged from 0.15 to 12 mg/g creatinine. Ten subjects (with initial urine
Ni concentrations >0.8 mg/g creatinine) were hospitalized and treated for 3 days with
intravenous fluids to induce diuresis, resulting in a mean elimination half-time (T%) for
serum Ni of 27 hours (SD +- 7 hour), which was significantly shorter (p < .001) than
the mean T% of 60 hours (SD
I 1 hours) in 1 1 subjects who did not receive
intravenous fluids. Laboratory tests showed transiently elevated levels of blood
reticulocytes (N = 7), urine albumin (N = 3), and serum bilirubin (N = 2). All
subjects recovered rapidly, without evident sequellae, and returned to work by the
eighth day after exposure.
Key words: metal poisoning, acute nickel toxicity, oral
The literature on acute oral toxicity of nickel in humans is limited to three
papers over a span of more than a century. Da Costa [ 18831 administered nickel salts
to patients as a treatment for diarrhea and epilepsy. He noted that oral doses of 1-3
grains (65-195 mg) of nickel sulfate were well tolerated and therapeutically
beneficial, whereas 5 grains (325 mg) induced giddiness, nausea, variable slowing of
the pulse, and slight reduction of body temperature. Assuming that Da Costa used the
common hexahydrate salt of nickel sulfate, the 5-grain dose contained 73 mg of
nickel. Faichnie and Langrishe [ 19101 reported accidental nickel poisoning of five
Departments of Laboratory Medicine (F. W.S., S .M.H., T. S.) and Pharmacology (F.W.S., S.M.H.),
University of Connecticut Medical School, Farmington.
Department of Medicine, Kitchener-Waterloo General Hospital, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada (B.D.).
Address reprint requests to F. William Sunderman, Jr., MD, Northeast Utilities Professor of Toxicology,
University of Connecticut Medical School, 263 Farmington Avenue, Farmington, CT 06032.
Accepted for publication March 15, 1988.
0 1988 Alan R. Liss, Inc.
Sunderman, Jr., et al.
British soldiers who drank lime-flavored barley water that had been mixed in a large
nickel urn with a central chamber for ice. Within 15 minutes, the soldiers became
acutely ill with nausea that lasted 1 day. Qualitative analysis showed that the beverage
contained nickel, apparently dissolved as nickel citrate. Daldrup et al. [ 19831
described fatal poisoning of a girl, age 2.5 years, who accidently ingested 10-15 g
of nickel sulfate hexahydrate crystals (- 2.2-3.3 g of Ni) from a chemistry hobby
set. The child rapidly became stuporous and developed nuchal rigidity, erythema,
dilated pupils, tachycardia, and pulmonary congestion. Despite repeated resuscitations after cardiac arrests, the child died 8 hours after the poisoning, and the autopsy
revealed acute hemorrhagic gastritis. The present paper describes a recent industrial
accident in which 32 electroplating workers inadvertently drank water that was
heavily contaminated with nickel sulfate and chloride.
The episode began on Saturday afternoon, June 13, 1987, when the main water
supply to a metal-plating factory was temporarily shut down for repairs. The plant,
which employs 338 workers, operates several automated electroplating lines used
primarily to refinish automobile bumpers. Except for a few maintenance and repair
personnel, the plant was unstaffed over the weekend until the evening shift reported
for work at 1 P.M. on Sunday the 14th of June. After 3 P.M. several workers on a
nickel-plating production line began to feel ill with symptoms that some attributed to
bitter-tasting water from a drinking fountain. The supervisor on the night shift tested
water samples from seven drinking fountains and found that the sample from the
suspect fountain was green and contained nickel (approximately 2 g/liter) while the
samples from the other fountains were colorless and uncontaminated with nickel. The
water supply to the contaminated fountain, which was adjacent to a nickel-plating
tank, was flushed and the fountain was disconnected at 3 A.M. on Monday, the 15th
of June. Since the ambient temperature was warm, most workers on the evening and
night shifts sweated profusely; the workers who developed symptoms evidently had
ingested 0.5-1.5 liters of water from the contaminated fountain. The green tint of the
water was inapparent under the factory lighting when viewed against the metallic gray
background of the stainless-steel bowl.
The nickel contamination of the drinking water was caused by back-siphonage
from a water recirculation system that cooled filtration pumps for the nickel-piating
tank. Leakage of pump gaskets had allowed the nickel-plating solution (nickel
sulfate, NiS04 * 6H20, 310 g/liter; nickel chloride, NiC12 * 6H20, 127 glliter; boric
acid, H3B04, 36 g/liter) to seep into the water recirculation system. The recirculation
system was connected via an open valve to a freshwater line. When the water main
was shut down, nickel-contaminated water was sucked from the recirculation system
into the freshwater line, from which the drinking fountain was directly tapped.
Three groups of subjects were studied: Group A consisted of 21 exposed
workers, 18 with symptoms, who were first examined on June 15; ten of these
workers (group A l ) were admitted to Kitchener-Waterloo General Hospital; the rest
(group A 2 ) were followed as outpatients. Group B consisted of 11 exposed workers,
Acute Nickel Toxicity in Plating Workers
two with mild symptoms, who were not examined until 17 June. Group C (controls)
consisted of 11 workers on the same production line, who did not drink from the
contaminated fountain on the 14th or 15th of June. The 43 subjects were men, age
17-36 years (mean ? SD, 26 2 5 years), in good health, excepting one with diabetes
mellitus, one with bronchial asthma, and one with chronic obstructive lung disease.
At least two of the subjects were heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages and most
smoked cigarettes.
A sample of water collected from the contaminated fountain on Sunday evening
June 14, and 21 1 specimens of urine or serum, collected from the subjects on 15, 16,
17, or 19 June, were promptly flown by chartered airplane to the University of
Connecticut Health Cecter where they were analyzed for nickel by electrothermal
atomic absorption spectrophotometry with Zeeman background correction [Sunderman et al., 19881. In addition to nickel, the water sample was tested for boron, the
urine specimens were examined by routine urinalysis and analyzed for creatinine and
albumin, and the serum specimens were analyzed for urea, creatinine, creatine kinase,
lactate dehydrogenase, aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase, and alkaline phosphatase. Routine clinical laboratory techniques were used for these assays,
except boron, which was analyzed by a spectrophotometric method [Baselt, 19801, and
albumin, which was analyzed by radioimmunoassay [Horak, 19871. The ten workers
who were admitted to Kitchener-Waterloo General Hospital (group A l ) had the following additional tests: chest X-ray, electrocardiogram, creatinine clearance, urine
total protein, blood leukocyte, platelet and reticulocyte counts, blood hemoglobin, pH,
pC02 and PO*, serum glucose, sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, bilirubin,
calcium, cortisol, prothrombin time, partial thromboplastin time, fibrinogen, and
fibrin split products. Follow-up studies , including physical examination, urinalysis,
blood hemoglobin, and reticuloccyte count, were performed 6 weeks postexposure.
Urine Ni concentrations were factored on the basis of creatinine concentrations
as recommended by Sunderman et al. [ 19861. Statistical computations (e.g., linear
and exponential regression, analysis of variance, Student’s t-test, Fisher’s exact test,
and Mann-Whitney U test) were performed according to Sachs [1984].
Estimated Exposures
The water sample analyzed at the University of Connecticut had a bright green
color and contained nickel (1.63 g/liter) and boron (68 mg/liter). The estimated oral
intake of nickel by the 20 symptomatic workers ranged from 0.5 to 2.5 g; the
estimated oral intake of boron ranged from 20 to 100 mg.
The following complaints were voiced by the 20 symptomatic workers: nausea
(N = 15), abdominal cramps or discomfort (N = 14), giddiness (N = 7), lassitude
(N = 6), headache (N = 5), diarrhea (N = 4), vomiting (N = 3), shortness of breath
(N = 2), cough (N = l ) , sore throat (N = l ) , heartburn (N = l ) , myalgia (N =
l), and dysgeusia (N = 1). The symptoms developed during the work shift and
generally lasted only a few hours. However, nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea,
headache, and/or lassitude persisted 1-2 days in seven of the ten hospitalized subjects
(group Al). All subjects became asymptomatic within three days postexposure.
Sunderman, Jr., et al.
Initial Clinical Observations
When first seen, most workers in group A showed anxiety and abdominal
guarding, but their physical findings were generally unremarkable. The only positive
findings were 1) expiratory wheezing in the subject with bronchial asthma, 2)
dyspnea and mild cyanosis in the subject with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
and 3) borderline hepatomegaly in two subjects who admitted heavy alcohol intake.
Workers in group B , first examined 3 days postexposure, were essentially normal
upon physical examination. No abnormalities were found by the routine laboratory
tests (urinalysis, blood count) that were performed during the initial clinical
Nickel Concentrations in Body Fluids
In specimens collected from 15 subjects in group A at 4 P.M. on 15 June, serum
Ni concentrations averaged 286 pg/liter, (range 12.8-1,340 pg/liter); urine Ni
concentrations averaged 5.8 mg/liter (range 0.23 -37.1 mg/liter), equal to 2.4 mg/g
creatinine (range 0.15-12.0 mg/g creatinine). In 11 control nickel-plating workers
(group C) serum Ni concentrations averaged 4.0 pg/liter (SD 2 1.2; range
2.0-6.5 pg/liter); urine Ni concentrations averaged 50 pg/liter (SD 2 13; range
22-70 pglliter), equal to 29 pg/g creatinine (SD k 7; range 17-41 pg/g creatinine).
For comparison, the following reference values for healthy hospital workers were
obtained in our laboratory: serum Ni = 0.28 pg/liter (SD k 0.24; range <0.05-1.08
pg/liter; N = 30); urine Ni = 2.0 pg/liter (SD 1.5; range 0.5-6.1 pg/liter; N =
34), equal to 2.0 pg/g creatinine (SD k 1.5; range 0.4-6.0 pg/g creatinine; N = 34)
[Sunderman, 19871.
Ten workers (group A l ) , whose initial urine nickel concentrations exceeded 1.5
mg/liter (0.8 mg/g creatinine) were admitted to the hospital for observation and
treatment by diuresis. These patients received iv infusions of sodium chloride solution
(0.15 mol/liter) at 150 ml/hour for 3 days, resulting in urine volumes that averaged
3,680 ml (SD k 760 ml) and 3,330 ml (SD 2 1,070 ml) on the second and third
hospital days. Serial diminutions of Ni concentrations in serum and urine specimens
from the ten individual subjects in group Al are plotted in Figure 1.
Mean Ni concentrations in serum and urine specimens from subjects in groups
A], A2, B , and C on days 1, 2, 3, and 5 after the exposure incident are listed in Table
I and shown in Figure 2. The Ni concentrations in specimens from the second group
of exposed subjects (group B ) on days 3 and 5 were slightly higher than those from
group A2. As expected, no significant changes of Ni concentrations were noted from
day to day in specimens from group C (controls). Close correlation (R = 0.97) was
observed between Ni concentrations in the 103 paired specimens of serum and urine
from the 43 subjects (groups A], A2, B , and C); the urine Ni concentrations (pg/g
creatinine) averaged 8.3 (SE k 0.2) times the corresponding serum Ni concentrations
@&liter) (Fig. 3).
Elimination half-times (TY2) of serum Ni for individual subjects in groups A I
and A2 were computed by a one-compartment mathematical model [Gibaldi and
Perrier, 19821. The model adequately described the data as shown by correlation
coefficients (R) of 0.963 (SD Ifr 0.038) and 0.946 (SD 0.041) in groups A, andA2,
Acute Nickel Toxicity in Plating Workers
Days post-exposure
Fig. 1. Serial measurements of nickel concentrations in serum and urine specimens from the ten
individual subjects in group A1 during 5 days postexposure.
respectively. The serum Ni T% for subjects in group A] averaged 27 hours (SD 7),
which was significantly shorter (p < .001) than the mean TY2 value of 60 h (SD
11) for subjects in group A2, who did not receive intravenous fluids to induce
diuresis. The serum Ni T% values were not significantly correlated with the initial
concentrations of serum Ni in subjects of group A] or AZ.
Diagnostic Tests
Two subjects in group A] and one subject in group A2 had urine albumin
concentrations above the upper limit of the laboratory’s reference range (16 mg/g
creatinine) on day 2 postexposure. The elevated concentrations of urine albumin (68,
40, and 27 mg/g creatinine, respectively) diminished on day 3 and returned to normal
by day 5 , suggesting mild, transient nephrotoxicity. One of the subjects with
albuminuria had concentrations of serum urea nitrogen (22 and 26 mg/dl) on days 2
and 3 postexposure that slightly exceeded the upper limit of the laboratory’s reference
range (20 mgldl). The nickel-exposed subjects in groups A ] , A2, and B did not have
significantly elevated results of the other clinical chemistry assays that were
performed at the University of Connecticut Health Center (creatinine, creatine kinase,
lactate dehydrogenase, aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase, and
alkaline phosphatase) on serums collected 1 , 2 , 3, or 5 days postexposure, compared
to the results in control subjects (group C ) .
Sunderman, Jr., et al.
TABLE I. Nickel Concentrations in Serum and Urine Specimens From Workers in the Various
Exposure Categories
Category of
exposure and
No. of subjects
Group A ,
(N = 1O)a
Group A2
(N =
Group B
(N = 11)'
Group C
(N = ll)d
Ni concentration (mean f SE)
460 2
310 &
145 t
(pg/g creat.)
3,760 f 1,230
1,870 f 480
1,290 f 320
304 68
27.8 &
7.7 r
269 f 82
138 f 20
90 f 19
60 f 13
* 1.2
* 1.6
18.6 f 12.9
14.7 & 3.4
140 f 69
143 f 31
3.8 & 0.4
3.9 k 0.3
2.8 t 0.5
4.5 f 0.8
2 2
2 5
+- 5
aHeavily exposed workers in the initial study group, who were admitted to the hospital and treated by
bExposed workers in the initial study group, who were followed as outpatients.
CExposed workers who were first examined 3 days after the incident.
dControl workers on the same production line, who did not drink from the contaminated water fountain.
Tests performed at Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital on the ten subjects in group Al
showed that the average concentration of blood hemoglobin increased from 15.1 g/dl
(SD & 0.7; range 14.0-16.1 g/L) on day 3 postexposure to 16.0 g/liter (SD k 0.6;
range 15.3-17.1 g/L) on day 8 (p < .01 by paired-sample t-test). Blood reticulocyte
counts increased from an average of 78 X lo9 cells/liter (SD k 44;range 34-139 X
lo9) on day 3 postexposure to 106 X lo9 cells/L (SD rt 49; range 48-217 X lo9)
on day 8 (p < .01 by paired-sample t-test). Blood reticulocyte counts exceeded the
laboratory's upper reference limit (75 X lo9 cells/liter) in seven of nine subjects in
group Al on day 8 postexposure. Mild hyperbilirubinemia developed on day 3
postexposure in two of the subjects (serum bilirubin levels = 43 and 30 pmol/liter,
respectively, compared to the upper reference limit of 20 pmol/liter). Electrocardiograms showed first-degree heart block on days 3-5 postexposure in one patient in
group A l . Results of chest X-rays and the other laboratory tests mentioned under
"Subjects and Methods" were normal throughout the patients' hospital stay.
Clinical Course
Subjects in group Al had slightly diminished body temperatures on days 2-4
postexposure. Sublingual temperatures, measured at 7 A.M. with an electronic digital
thermometer, averaged 36.7"C (SD k 0.3; range 36.2-37.2"C) on day 2, 36.5"C
(SD 2 0.4; range 36.0-37.1"C) on day 3, and 36.5"C (SD k 0.3; range
36.0-36.9"C) on day 4. Their basal pulse rates at 7 A.M. were normal, averaging 74
(SD & 10) beats/min on day 2, 66 k 9 beatslmin on day 3, and 72 6 beats/min on
Acute Nickel Toxicity in Plating Workers
Days post-exposure
Fig. 2. Nickel concentrations (mean -+ SE) in serum and urine specimens from the control workers
(group C , solid bars, N = 11) and the three groups of workers who drank nickel-contaminated water
(group A,, bars with dark diagonal hatching, N = 10; group Az, stippled bars, N = 11; group B , bars
with light diagonal hatching, N = 11) during 5 days postexposure.
day 4. The patients’ hospital courses were uncomplicated and all were discharged
from the hospital on day 5 postexposure. All subjects in groups A I , A Z , and B
returned to work by day 8. No abnormalitiesor sequellae were detected in the workers
who returned for follow-up examination. At 6 weeks postexposure, the average
hemoglobin concentration in blood specimens from subjects in group Al decreased to
15.3 g/liter (SD k 0.8; range 14.4-16.6 g/liter) and the average reticulocyte count
decreased to 81 X lo9 cells/liter (SD % 41; range 30-168 X lo9 cells/L).
The acute gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms that developed in the
workers who drank nickel-contaminated water were generally similar to those
described by previous authors [Da Costa, 1883; Faichnie and Langrishe, 19101.
Slowing of the pulse, mentioned by Da Costa [1883] as a sign of nickel toxicity, was
not observed in the present study, except for one subject with first-degree heart block.
Diminished body temperature, another sign mentioned by Da Costa, was noted in the
hospitalized patients in this study, consistent with findings of Gordon and Stead
[ 19851 that NiCI,-treated mice develop hypothennia and impaired thermoregulation.
The symptoms of acute nickel toxicity in this study resemble those noted by Webster
et al. [1980] in 23 hemodialysis patients, when leaching of nickel-plated stainless
Sunderman, Jr., et al.
1000 7
Urine Ni (pg/g creatinine)
Fig. 3 . Correlation of nickel concentrations in 103 pairs of serum and urine specimens from subjects in
groups A,, A2, B , and C . The regression equation is Y = 0.14X - 3.90, where “X” denotes urine Ni
concentration (pg/g creatinine) and ‘ ‘Y” denotes serum Ni concentration (pgiliter). The correlation
coefficient (R) is 0.97.
steel in a water-heater tank caused nickel contamination of dialysis fluid. Their
symptoms (nausea, vomiting, weakness, headache, palpitations) developed during
and after dialysis and typically lasted 3-13 hours but occasionally persisted up to 48
In the present study, the ten exposed workers whose initial nickel concentrations
in urine exceeded 0.8 mg/g creatinine were administered intravenous fluids to induce
pronounced diuresis. This therapeutic approach was based on the recommendation of
Mertz et al. 119701 that active renal elimination of nickel by maximal diuresis could
be applied therapeutically in nickel poisoning. As predicted by Mertz and co-workers,
induction of diuresis reduced the mean elimination half-time (T%) of serum Ni to 27
hours in group A l , compared to 60 hours in group AZ, which did not receive
intravenous fluids. Although chelating agents were ready for use in the event that a
patient’s condition deteriorated, chelation therapy did not become necessary.
Since the estimated oral intake of boron by the 20 symptomatic workers was
only 20-200 mg, boric acid poisoning probably did not contribute significantly to the
present episode. The boron content of drinking water ranges from 0.4 to 5 mg/liter
and the boron intake in food and water ranges from 0.3 to 20 mg/day for adult persons
[Larsen, 19871. Adults can ingest 4 g of boric acid (- 0.7 g of boron) without
incident, whereas a single oral dose of 18-20 g (- 3.2-3.5 g of boron) is probably
lethal; chronic intoxication may occur after daily consumption of 4-5 g of boric acid
(- 0.7-0.9 g of boron) for 3-4 weeks [Valdes-Dapena and Arey, 19621.
The mild erythrocytosis and reticulocytosis that developed in nickel-exposed
subjects in group Al is noteworthy since cobalt salts are known to stimulate
erythropoiesis in humans [Duckham and Lee, 19761 and intrarenal injections of nickel
sulfides and oxides cause erythrocytosis in rats [Sunderman et al., 1982, 19871.
These hematological effects of cobalt and nickel are mediated by enhanced renal
production of erythropoietin [Hopfer et al., 1984; Beru et al., 19861. The transient
hyperbilirubinemiathat occurred in two nickel-exposed subjects may be secondary to
nickel induction of microsomal heme oxygenase activity in liver and kidney, a
phenomenon that has been extensively studied in rodents [Sunderman, 1987bl.
Acute Nickel Toxicity in Plating Workers
Nickel concentrations in serum and urine specimens from the control electroplating workers (group C) are comparable to those previously observed in other
nickel-plating operations [Bernacki et al., 1978, 1980; Tola et al., 19791. For further
information on biological monitoring of industrial exposures to nickel compounds and
detailed discussions of nickel toxicology in humans and experimental animals,
readers may consult recent monographs and reviews [Sunderman, 1984, 1987a;
Brown and Sunderman, 1985; Norseth, 19861.
We thank Tom T. Liu, M.D., Bernard A. Haberstroh, M.D., and H. John
Lachner, M.D., for assistance with medical care, Eva Horak, Ph.D., for assistance
with radioimmunoassays of urine albumin, and Kevin R. Sweeney, Ph.D., for
assistance with toxicokinetic computations. This study was supported in part by the
U.S . Environmental Protection Agency, the Nickel Producers’ Environmental Research Association, and the Northeast Utilities Company.
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