Diseases Caused by Zinc or Its Compounds

1. Introduction and Definitions

Zinc is a bluish-white, lustrous metal commonly used in various industrial applications, including galvanization, alloy production, and the manufacture of batteries and paints. Zinc compounds, such as zinc oxide and zinc chloride, are also widely used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and chemical manufacturing. While zinc is essential for human health in trace amounts, excessive exposure to zinc or its compounds can lead to significant health issues. This article provides comprehensive information on diseases caused by zinc and its compounds, targeting occupational health nurses and doctors.

2. Agent Causes the Disease

Exposure to zinc and its compounds can occur through inhalation of dust or fumes, ingestion, or dermal contact. In industrial settings, exposure often occurs during processes such as welding, smelting, and galvanizing, where zinc fumes can be released into the air. Common zinc compounds that pose health risks include zinc oxide, zinc chloride, and zinc sulfate.

3. Workers at Risk of This Disease

Several occupations and tasks put workers at higher risk of exposure to zinc and its compounds, including:

  • Welders and Metal Workers: Exposed to zinc fumes during welding and metal cutting processes.
  • Smelting and Refining Workers: Handling zinc ores and refining zinc metal.
  • Galvanizing Workers: Involved in the process of coating metals with zinc to prevent corrosion.
  • Battery Manufacturing Workers: Using zinc compounds in the production of batteries.
  • Chemical Manufacturing Workers: Handling zinc compounds in various chemical processes.
  • Paint and Coating Workers: Using zinc-based pigments and coatings.

4. Symptoms

Symptoms of diseases caused by zinc exposure can vary depending on the level and duration of exposure:

  • Acute Exposure: Symptoms include respiratory irritation (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath), metallic taste in the mouth, and gastrointestinal distress (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). Inhalation of zinc fumes can lead to metal fume fever, characterized by flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle aches, and fatigue.
  • Chronic Exposure: Long-term exposure to zinc compounds can cause chronic respiratory issues such as bronchitis and pneumoconiosis. Chronic skin exposure can lead to dermatitis and other skin conditions.

5. Diagnosis

Diagnosing diseases caused by zinc involves a combination of clinical evaluation, occupational exposure assessment, and specific tests:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Detailed assessment of the patient's work history and symptoms.
  • Pulmonary Function Tests: To assess lung function and detect any obstructive or restrictive patterns.
  • Chest X-rays or CT Scans: Imaging to detect lung inflammation, fibrosis, or other damage.
  • Blood and Urine Tests: Measuring zinc levels to assess exposure and monitor organ function.
  • Neurological Evaluation: Including tests for cognitive and motor function if neurological symptoms are present.
  • Skin Examination: For signs of irritation and dermatitis.

6. Treatment

Treatment for diseases caused by zinc focuses on managing symptoms and preventing further exposure:

  • Remove from Exposure: Immediate removal from the source of zinc exposure is crucial.
  • Symptomatic Treatment: Providing medications to manage respiratory, gastrointestinal, and neurological symptoms. Topical treatments for skin irritation and dermatitis.
  • Supportive Care: Including hydration, nutritional support, and monitoring of respiratory and neurological function.
  • Long-term Monitoring: Regular follow-up to monitor lung function, neurological health, and overall health status.

7. Prevention

Preventing diseases caused by zinc involves implementing strict control measures in the workplace:

  • Engineering Controls: Using local exhaust ventilation, enclosed processes, and proper maintenance of equipment to reduce airborne exposure to zinc dust and fumes.
  • Work Practices: Implementing safe work practices such as proper handling and disposal of zinc-containing materials, and avoiding eating, drinking, or smoking in areas where zinc is used.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Providing and ensuring the use of appropriate respirators, protective clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Health Surveillance: Regular health screenings, including pulmonary function tests, neurological assessments, and monitoring of zinc levels in blood and urine for workers exposed to zinc.
  • Education and Training: Informing workers about the hazards of zinc and safe work practices to minimize exposure.

By recognizing the hazards of zinc exposure and applying effective preventive strategies, occupational health professionals can substantially lower the occurrence of related illnesses and improve the overall health and safety of workers.

Workplace Exposure Limits:

  • Zinc Chloride Fume:
    • NIOSH REL:
      • TWA 1 mg/m³, STEL 2 mg/m³.
    • OSHA PEL: