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Investigations on the quantitative determination of nickel and chromium in human lung tissue

Industrial medical, toxicological, and occupational medical expertise aspects


Nickel (Ni) and some of its relatively insoluble compounds as well as chromates may be able to induce cancer in the region of the lungs, as well as in the nose and paranasal sinuses after occupational exposure. Latency periods may amount to 20 years and more. The results of recent investigations have shown that these metals cumulate in the lung tissue after inhalation of relatively insoluble chromium and nickel compounds. The quantitative detection of these heavy metals in samples of pulmonary tissue hence permits the amount of past exposure to be estimated. To establish the normal values, samples of pulmonary tissue from 30 normal subjects were investigated for chromium and nickel content. The samples were taken from different segments and lobes of the lungs, taking topographical anatomical criteria into consideration. In addition, 15 persons who had formerly been exposed to nickel and/or chromium (11 nickel refinery workers, of whom 10 had died of lung cancer, 2 stainless steel welders, 1 foundry worker, 1 electrical technician) were also investigated. From the results of 495 tissue samples from the normal group, median chromium concentrations between 130 and 280 ng/g were calculated, with median nickel concentrations of 20–40 ng/g (wet weight). If these values are related to the nickel concentrations measured in refinery workers, values 112-5,860 times higher were found. The concentrations were about 500 times higher than normal for nickel, and about 60 times higher than normal for chromium in the stainless steel welders. For the foundry workers who died of lung cancer, chromium and nickel concentrations in the normal range were calculated, with the exception of the nickel concentrations in the upper and lower lobes of the right lung. The very high nickel concentrations found in the samples of lung tissue from former nickel refinery workers should be regarded as a guideline with regard to the appraisal of the causal relationship between lung cancer and occupational exposure to relatively insoluble nickel compounds. This result is also supported by epidemiological investigations on this subgroup and must thus be considered etiologically conclusive. For the welders, chromium and nickel concentrations were found that were markedly above normal, but as yet there is no epidemiologically reliable verification for the increased occurrence of malignancies in this occupational group. On the basis of present scientific knowledge, no indications were found of relevant chromium and/or nickel exposure of the lung tissue that might be able to induce lung cancer in either foundry workers or for electric technicians.

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Correspondence to H. J. Raithel.

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Dedicated to Professor V. Becker on his 65th birthday

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Raithel, H.J., Schaller, K.H., Reith, A. et al. Investigations on the quantitative determination of nickel and chromium in human lung tissue. Int. Arch Occup Environ Heath 60, 55–66 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00409380

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Key words

  • Nickel
  • Chromium
  • Lung tissue
  • Norm values
  • Occupational exposure