Metal Fume Fever

What is Metal Fume fever

Metal fume fever is a condition caused by exposure to the fumes of certain metals being cut or welded. The most common metal is zinc (think zinc plating or galvanized steel), followed by cadmium, chromium, manganese, nickel, and iron. Brass foundry workers can also get this from exposure to zinc fumes. Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper.

Also known as ‘Monday Morning Fever’, spetter shakes, zinc chills, brass chills, zinc ague (ague is an illness with a fever and shivering).

Metal Fume Fever Symptoms

Symptoms are very similar to the flu also called influenze. They include

  • aches and pains
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • increased body temperature
  • chills
  • shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • tightness in the chest
  • general malaise (a sense of uneasiness and you are not sure why you feel like this)

Onset of Metal Fume Fever

Most symptoms begin to show up 4-10 hours after exposure to the toxic fumes. The delayed onset is the reason metal fume fever is sometimes called ‘Monday Morning Fever.”

How Long Does Metal Fume Fever Last

Metal fume fever lasts 24-48 hours. There are no lasting long term effects.

Metal Fume Fever Treatment

The first thing to do is remove the source of the fumes. This means the affected person should stop the task they are doing and get some fresh air. Rest in a fume free environment alleviates the symptoms usually within 24-48 hours.

How Long Does It Take To Get Metal Fume Fever

The duration of exposure varies as it is possible to build up a tolerance to metal fume fever. No amount of unprotected exposure is recommended. The ‘fever’ can be caused by a very short term exposure (think minutes) to zinc (and other) fumes.

Because the intensity and duration of exposure can vary widely the best practice is to have no exposure. If you have to work in such an environment personal safety equipment is a must.

Note that cutting suspect metals is much more dangerous than welding. Cutting zinc coated or galvanized steel releases almost 500 times more zinc fumes than welding the same metal.

Other metals vary. Interestingly chromium coated metal releases the same amount of fumes whether it is being cut or welded.

Metal Fume Fever Long Term Effects

There are no known long term effects of metal fume fever. It is however suspected to contribute to respiratory conditions.

What Causes Metal Fume Fever

Metal fume fever is exposure to the fumes produced when cutting or welding zinc, cadmium, manganese, nickel, iron. Workers in brass foundrys are also exposed to toxic zinc fumes.

Soldering and brazing certain metals can also cause metal fume fever. Hobbyists who do not consider themselves to be ‘welders’ should be aware of this.

The equipment used does not mater much. All forms of welding (mig, tig, oxy-acetylene) and cutting (oxy-acetylene, plasma cutting) will release toxic fumes.

Soldering and brazing certain metals can also cause metal fume fever. Hobbyists who do not consider themselves to be ‘welders’ should be aware of this.

The proper terms for the various welding techniques are:

  • MIG – Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW)
  • TIG – Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW)
  • Stick – Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW)
  • Flux-Cored Arc Welding (FCAW)
  • Energy Beam Welding (EBW)
  • Atomic Hydrogen Welding (AHW)
  • Gas Tungsten-Arc Welding.
  • Plasma Arc Welding

The type of welding used depends on the task.

Who Gets Metal Fume Fever

Generally welders and workers in industry who decommission old metal ship and factories. The fumes are created when workers use a cutting torch to cut metal that is coated with zinc or cadmium. Welders welding metal that is coated with zinc are the people who usually get metal fume fever.

How Can You Prevent Metal Fume Fever

Education workers in the industry is the best prevention. Also, the metal that is being cut or welded needs to be identified. Zinc coatings are used to prevent rust and are very easy to visually recognize. The zinc coating can be removed by grinding it away with a grinding disc or flap disc. A resiprator should be worn when removing zinc coatings in this manner.

Grinding is very labour intensive and is really only practical for small areas such as connection point for 2 pieces of metal that are being welded. A much more efficient way to remove zinc coatings is with hydrochloric acid.

Hydrochloric acid is also called muriatic acid and can be acquired at any pool supply store or hardware store. It is a very strong acid. Muriatic acid is used to lower the ph level in swimming pools. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is mandatory when working with hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid. These two acids are basically the same with hydrochloric acid being slightly stronger than muriatic acid. Gloves, safety glasss and expecially a respirator certified for this chemical should be worn. The 3M™ Acid Gas Cartridge from the 6000, 7000, and FF-400 series are all certified protection for vapours and acid gasses. They are usually sold in pairs and are relatively inexpensive.

Treating zinc coated metal with muriatic acid should be done outdoors if possible. If done indoors suitable ventilation and strong exhause fans should be used. Full strength hydrochloric acid (31% by mass, muriatic acid is less concentrated, 14-29 percent) removes the zinc coating completely in about 1 hour. A very weak diluted solution of hydrochloric acid and water usually takes 4-6 hours. A diluted solution (mixing muriatic acid with water) is much safer to work with. Safety note: always pour acid into water. If you do it the other way around a violent reaction can occur that is dangerous. Also note that you need to remove the coating from BOTH sides of the metal. A baking soda and water solution will neutralize the acid.

Muriatic acid should not be left uncover inside. All metal, including all tools, withing a 20 foot radius of uncovered muriatic acid will rust quite badly very quickly (within a single day). Expensive tools and vehicles can be badly damaged from exposure to hydrochloric acid fumes.

Metal coated with cadmium is the second type of coating that causes metal fume fever when it is burned. Cadmium coatings are more difficult to spot and are often on older equipment or ships that are being decomissioned. Cadmium plating is gold or gold-orange in color. It is easy to confuse cadmium plating with some zinc coatings, which can be gold colored in some applications. Cadmium is used to protect metal from corrosion especially metal that will be exposed to salt water.

Vinegar can be used in place of hydrochloric acid. Using vinegar to remove zinc coatings takes between 4-8 hours. Metal items soaking in vinegar can be left over night. Be sure to neutralize the vinegar with a water and baking soda solution.

Does Drinking Milk Help Metal Fume Fever?
Not really. It used to be thought that drinking milk before welding would protect the welder from metal fume fever. This is not true. Calcium in milk will slightly help prevent the body from absorbing the zinc in the zinc fumes. The protection is minimal at best and shoiuld not be relied upon. Generally zinc and cadmium coated metals should never be welded or cut without removing the coating and using PPE.

Some muriatic acid labels recommend drinking milk or egg whites and water as a treatment for breathing in muriatic acid fumes, not treatment of metal fume fever. Some of the thinking about drinking milk for metal fume fever may have come from this known treatment for hydrochloric acid poisoning.

Is Metal Fume Fever Deadly?

Short answer is no, metal fume fever is not deadly. The condition is also not contagious as it is not a bio-agent, it is caused by exposure to zinc or cadmium fumes. In very rare instances it can be deadly, but this is generally limited to cutting or welding cadmium coated metal. Welding or cutting cadmium coated metal can result in cadmium poisoning.

There are two types of cadmium poisoning, acute (short term, rapid onset) and chronic (long term exposure, think years). Death from cadmium poisoning, technically a type of metal fume fever, is almost never seen in the modern world.

Metal Fume Fever with Respirator

Using an approved respirator such as the 3M 6000 or 7000 series will prevent metal fume fever. Using a respirator when welding/cutting galvanized metal is not an option, it must be worn. This includes fellow workers in the same are where the welding or cutting is taking place.

How Common is Metal Fume Fever?

Each year in the United States there are 1500-2500 reported cases or metal fume fever or MMF. The vast majority of these cases occur in welders. The amount of unreported cases is unknown and thought be be much larger.

Challenges – Education

Workers need to be educated on the causes and prevention of metal fume fever.

Health care workes (doctors, nurses, workplace health and safety reps) should be trained on the causes, prevention and treatment of metal fume fever.

In particular being able to diagnose this condition will go a long way in improving the workplace safety for vulnerable workers.

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