We get a lot of questions about weld fume dangers as well as laser and plasma cutting fumes. People are aware that there are health risks. Many of them have heard about hexavalent chromium, which is a very good reason to be careful when working around metal fumes, but it’s not the only reason. “Hex chrome” is just one of the hazards involved in these activities.
You may have heard that hexavalent chromium, often called hex chrome, is mainly a problem for people working with stainless steel. While stainless steel does contain much more chromium than other types of steel, many metals are either alloyed or electroplated with chromium to protect them from corrosion. Mild steel and aluminum can still produce dangerous fumes.
Metals don’t usually contain hexavalent chromium. Instead, when the metal is heated to a high temperature, the chromium reacts with oxygen to form compounds, and hexavalent chromium is one of them. This compound, when inhaled, is known to increase the risk of lung cancer and other cancers. When in contact with the skin, it can cause irritation and skin sores.
Other common metals that people may encounter in weld fume or other cutting fumes include iron, copper, zinc, nickel, manganese, aluminum, tin, beryllium, cadmium, lead, and titanium. Most of these can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. Others, like cadmium, are known cancer-causing agents. Some, such as lead and manganese, are neurotoxins which damage your nerves and brain. Beryllium can cause a fatal lung disease. Components of metal fumes can also cause kidney damage.
No metal fume or smoke from cutting or welding is safe to inhale. Even metals that are generally not toxic, like iron, can accumulate in the lungs and cause long-term damage. The lungs are very sensitive to damage, and welding or cutting produces metal particles small enough to be easily inhaled. Whether it’s referred to as weld fume, smoke, gases, or dust, it’s all an airborne cloud of tiny particles that can make their way deep into your lungs. They can be as small as 0.3 microns, which is 250 times smaller than a human hair and about 15 times smaller than a red blood cell.
Other metals, including nickel, zinc, and copper, cause “metal fume fever”, a flu-like response to chemicals released by damaged cells in the lungs. The symptoms resemble the flu, with headaches, fever and chills, muscle aches, and coughing. Welding is the occupation most likely to result in this condition, but plasma and laser cutting fumes can also cause it. While it’s often reported that drinking milk can help prevent this condition, and many people swear by it, that doesn’t prevent the long-term lung damage that occurs when metal dust is inhaled. Drinking milk won’t hurt, but avoiding the toxic effects of exposure altogether is a safer bet.
Fortunately, there’s no reason to put your health in danger just to do your job. OSHA regulations set safe exposure levels for almost all metal fumes, and they recommend several methods to prevent over-exposure. A dust and fume collection system is efficient, effective, and can reduce or eliminate the need for uncomfortable and often improperly used respirators. Every situation is different, but our team can advise you on the best ways to keep people safe when they’re welding or working around laser or plasma cutting.
We hope this information is useful for the people who have asked us questions in the past and who come to us with questions in the future. Please contact us if you have specific questions about dust and fume collectors for your welding areas or cutting tables.
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