Nickel, cobalt, and respiratory cancer

The transition to renewable energy entails the use of metals that can be carcinogenic, such as nickel and cobalt. These metallic elements are used in the production of batteries, machinery, and high-quality steel. Nickel compounds are classified as carcinogenic, and cobalt and some cobalt compounds are suspected to have a similar effect. The study aims to elucidate a possible link between low-level or short-term exposures and the risk of respiratory cancer.
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"The green shift" towards renewable energy relies extensively on metals like cobalt and nickel, which when inhaled in certain contexts are known or suspected to cause cancer. The production, combustion, or recycling of these metals may raise concern about potential health risks. Research that can shed light on this issue is crucial.

Cobalt has been refined in Norway since 1952, and potential health effects for workers may have been overshadowed by exposure to nickel compounds, which have been produced for over 100 years. Increased risk of airway cancer was found in Norwegian workers in the 1970s, but is assumed to be under control. Exposure levels were very much reduced in the 1980s, with further improvements during subsequent decades. Still, we need better documentation of potential health effects of low, continuous exposures to nickel. The project will expand previous studies to include lower exposures over an extended period.

Emissions from metal production, containing both sulfuric acid and metals, affect the environment within a radius of up to 50–100 km, perhaps even farther with airborne dust, and some consequences for soil, sediment, and vegetation have been readily apparent. Two areas in Norway, Agder and Finnmark counties, have had proximity to nickel production for many decades. Metalworkers experience the highest exposures, but we need to know whether low emissions can also be harmful to residents in surrounding areas.

Nickel exposure causes minimal damage to genetic material (DNA) but may contribute to cancer development through what we call epigenetic mechanisms, involving how DNA is read and expressed, thereby affecting cell properties, control of cell division, and viability. These complex biomolecular effects have not yet been explored in Norwegian nickel workers, underscoring the need for such analyses.

Research Questions

The studies will examine cancer risk among workers in metal production and the population (residents) in counties with such metal industry or bordering such areas. Workers in the metal industry will be invited to provide blood samples that can be examined for molecular biological changes. We seek answers to the following questions:

  1. Do current low levels of nickel exposure in Norwegian metal industry increase the risk of respiratory cancer? Does exposure to cobalt increase the risk of lung cancer? How do concentration and duration of such exposure influence the risk?
  2. Do residents in the catchment areas of emissions from metal industries have a higher risk of respiratory cancer?
  3. Are there molecular biological (epigenetic) changes in blood from metalworkers at current exposure levels?