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Metal Fume Fever- A Byproduct of Welding

When I was a kid, welders would often talk about how drinking milk could keep them from getting sick with metal fume fever. Now that my son has started working with galvanized metal, I wanted to know more about this sickness to protect him against this nasty illness.

Metal Fume Fever is caused by the inhalation of metal fumes and can be very dangerous if not treated properly. Symptoms can include fever, chills, headache, nausea, and dizziness. Drinking milk doesn’t prevent Metal Fume Fever and may actually increase the risk of developing the disease.

Metal fume fever is definitely not something you want to mess with, so be sure to take precautions when working with metals. Always wear a respirator when around metal fumes, and be sure to ventilate the area well. In this article, I discuss all aspects of Metal Fume Fever.

Picture of welding fumes surrounding a welder, which could lead to metal fume fever

Causes of Metal Fume Fever

Did you know that there are health dangers associated with welding? Welders can be exposed to dangerous fumes, and in some cases, these fumes can cause Metal Fume Fever.

Zinc is the key ingredient of galvanized coated metal. When welding zinc alloys (including both metals and their compounds), zinc oxide fumes are released, a yellowish-green smoke with fine white dust particles.

Breathing zinc oxide fumes for an extended period is the primary cause of galvanic weld poisoning, commonly referred to as metal fume fever. The magnitude of the exposure will directly impact the severity of the symptoms.

Galvanized steel welding is very common in the metal fabrication industry. Most welders have worked with galvanized steel at some point in their lives and have faced the contamination that this metal produces.

How to prevent Metal Fume Fever

Welding creates sparks and intense heat, which can quickly fill a workspace with hazardous fumes. Even a tiny amount of exposure can cause health problems, so it’s essential to weld in a well-ventilated area.

Ventilation systems remove harmful fumes and gases from the work area, keeping you safe while you weld. In addition to ventilation systems, always wear the appropriate safety gear.

You must wear a suitable respirator when welding; this includes while wearing your helmet. There are three primary types of respirators disposable, half mask, and air-purifying, with the latter two being the best choices.

I find that most cheap disposable masks don’t provide adequate protection from fumes, and they’re not worth risking my health to save a few dollars. I prefer half masks; they typically offer suitable protection, especially when combined with a well-ventilated workspace.

However, a half-mask doesn’t protect your eyes from fumes. If you’re welding in an environment with no fresh air circulation, then you should use an air-purifying respirator.

Symptoms of Metal Fume Fever

Thousands of workers are affected by metal fume fever each year. The condition can cause a wide variety of symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose. However, the most common effects associated with Metal Fume Fever are similar to those of the flu.

Metal fume fever begins shortly after exposure to zinc oxide, and symptoms include mild headaches and nausea. If the exposure is greater, the symptoms of the flu become permanent.

Moderate exposure to zinc oxide causes chills, tremors, mild fever, vomiting, and a cold sweat. When the listed symptoms are triggered, it’s time to stop welding and get some fresh air. Symptoms can become exhausting, and you may need to rest until they stop.

Fatalities have been associated with extreme cases of poisoning. Therefore, when symptoms of metal fume fever begin, you should stop the exposure immediately.

Metal fume fever is transitory. Within four hours of exposure, symptoms begin to diminish and vanish entirely within 24 hours. In cases of dangerous overexposure, the symptoms can be prolonged for 48 hours.

Should I drink milk after welding galvanized?

Historically, welders believed that being glued to a glass of milk would help them avoid chronic diseases or work accidents because of inhaling amounts of welding fumes.

Experienced welders who have suffered from galvanic poisoning will recommend drinking milk during and after welding galvanized steel to avoid inconvenience because drinking milk can speed up the recovery process, as calcium helps flush zinc buildups out of the body.

However, the myth about drinking milk is not a proven fact; milk is not an antidote to toxic agents. Its prophylactic use is not recommended and should not be considered an adequate substitute against MFF.

The preventative efficiency of milk for galvanic poisoning has never been demonstrated, and some studies even indicate that milk can facilitate lead absorption.

Although the concept of drinking milk to avoid these side effects is a myth, nausea and heaviness from inhaled toxic fumes can be resolved by drinking milk after or during welding. But the best way to prevent getting sick when welding galvanized is to follow proper safety precautions, wear a mask.

Does welding shorten your life?

The health effects caused by welding exposures vary widely because the fumes can contain many different substances. However, welding can damage your lungs and shorten your life if you don’t protect yourself.

Chronic respiratory problems, including bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, emphysema, pneumoconiosis (refers to dust-related diseases), decreased lung capacity, silicosis caused by exposure to silica, and siderosis, a dust-related sickness instigated by iron oxide dirt in the lungs, are the major diseases that welders are more prone to catch.

Other health complications linked to welding can include cardiopathy, skin disorder, deafness, chronic gastritis, gastroduodenitis, and stomach ulcers. When exposed to heavy metals such as chromium and nickel, Welders are more vulnerable to kidney damage.

In this context, with a greater chance of absorbing the heavily metallic fumes caused by welding, we can say that welding can shorten your life if proper preventive measures and safety rules are neglected.  

Does welding cause sunburns?

The welding process generates two types of radiation: UV, like the sun’s rays, and long-term exposure to UV radiation can cause sunburns. Recently, a friend came over and used the welder in my shop.

It was his first time welding with goggles on, and he loved working with them. However, he sent me a picture of his face the following day; he was sunburned everywhere except the spots covered by the goggles.

The other form of radiation that welding produces is infrared. It is the same kind of radiation used to kill cancer cells and heat food in the microwave. This type of radiation can cause internal damage to the body.

Safety equipment for welding includes goggles, a face mask with a dark window, a protective hat made of fire-resistant materials, pants and long sleeves, welding leathers to protect the arms, legs, and upper body from fire spurs, high temperature, and dripping metal.

You can expose yourself to infrared and UV radiation that can cause sunburn-type effects by not having the correct safety measures.

Should welders wear sunscreen?

Exposure to ultraviolet light can also cause skin burns similar to a sunburn. Therefore, welders should wear sunscreens because they contain vital protection that filters UV rays. Sunscreens reduce the effects of UV rays and can be of two types, physical and chemical.

The former remains longer on the skin’s surface and causes rebound to radiation, thus preventing it from penetrating the skin. On the other hand, chemical filters absorb radiation, preventing it from penetrating deeper into the skin.

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