Nickel Profile


CAS No. 7440-02-0
IARC Monograph Vol. 49, 1990
Metallic Nickel and Alloys (Group 2B)
IARC Monograph Vol. 100C, 2012
Nickel Compounds (Group 1)

Nickel Profile


  • A silvery, hard metal or gray powder not commonly found in nature
  • Associated cancers: Lung, nasal, and paranasal cancers
  • Most important routes of exposure: Inhalation, skin contact
  • Uses: Found in stainless steel, nickel-based alloys, electroplating, casting and alloy steels, and rechargeable batteries
  • Environmental exposures: Primary exposure to nickel for most is from food and water; however, nickel is not carcinogenic via ingestion, only via inhalation
  • Occupational exposures: Approx. 117,000 Canadians are exposed at work, primarily welders, machine tool operators, and construction millwrights and industrial mechanics
  • Fast fact: As of 2014, four Canadian provinces had active nickel mines (Manitoba, Newfoundland, Ontario, and Quebec).

General Information

Metallic nickel is a silvery, hard metal or a gray powder.[1] It is not commonly found in nature.[2] Nickel typically exists as a trace component of many different minerals, particularly those containing magnesium and iron.[2] In Canada, nickel is usually found in sulphide ores, especially pentlandite, together with copper, cobalt, gold, and silver.[3] Nickel’s hardness, strength, and resistance to corrosion and heat make it an ideal component in alloys.[4]

Most nickel compounds are green to black in colour, turn yellow when heated, and dissolve easily in water.[1] There are numerous other synonyms and product names for nickel and its compounds; see Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB) for more information.[5]

Nickel compounds were classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, with a definite link to lung, nasal, and paranasal cancer in humans.[6] This evaluation was primarily linked to nickel compounds containing oxygen and sulphur, which are commonly encountered in nickel refining work. However, epidemiological evidence for soluble nickel was conclusive enough to classify nickel compounds in general as carcinogenic to humans.[6] The Group 1 classification for nickel compounds was reaffirmed in the 2012 IARC review of Group 1 agents.[7]

Metallic nickel and alloys were classified as Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans. This classification is based on insufficient epidemiological evidence in humans and sufficient evidence for lung cancer in rats.[6] Metallic nickel also caused local sarcomas after injection in rats and hamsters. Nickel alloys display limited evidence of carcinogenicity in animals.

Working with nickel (e.g. in nickel refining or welding) can cause chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function, as well as immunological and renal effects.[4] It is not clear if these effects are due entirely to nickel, since exposure to other substances (e.g. cobalt) also occurs in these settings.[4] Nickel exposure is also a very common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. An estimated 10-20% of the population reports a reaction to nickel, usually from jewellery and other consumer products.[4] Some people who are sensitized to nickel may have asthma that is related to their exposure.[4]

Regulations and Guidelines

Occupational exposure limits (OEL)[8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22]

Canadian JurisdictionsNickel compoundOEL
Canada Labour CodeElemental1.5 mg/m3[i]
Insoluble0.2 mg/m3[i]
Soluble0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel subsulfide0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm [c]
ABElemental1.5 mg/m3
Insoluble0.2 mg/m3
Soluble0.1 mg/m3
Nickel subsulfide0.1 mg/m3
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm
BCElemental0.05 mg/m3
Insoluble0.05 mg/m3
Soluble0.05 mg/m3
Nickel subsulfide0.10 mg/m3[i]
Nickel carbonyl0.001 ppm
MB, NL, NS, PEElemental1.5 mg/m3[i]
Insoluble0.2 mg/m3[i]
Soluble0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel subsulfide0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm [c]
NBElemental1.0 mg/m3
Insoluble1.0 mg/m3
Soluble0.1 mg/m3
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm
NT, NU, SKElemental1.5 mg/m3[i]; 3.0 mg/m3 [stel]
Insoluble0.2 mg/m3[i]; 0.6 mg/m3 [stel]
Soluble0.1 mg/m3[i]; 0.3 mg/m3 [stel]
Nickel subsulfide0.1 mg/m3[i]; 0.3 mg/m3 [stel]
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm; 0.15 ppm [stel]
ONElemental1.0 mg/m3[i]
Insoluble0.2 mg/m3[i]
Soluble0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel subsulfide0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm [c]
QCElemental1.0 mg/m3
Insoluble1.0 mg/m3
Soluble0.1 mg/m3
Nickel sulfide roasting, fume and dust1.0 mg/m3 [em]
Nickel carbonyl0.001 mg/m3; 0.007 ppm [stel]
YTInsoluble1.0 mg/m3; 3 mg/m3[stel]
Soluble0.1 mg/m3; 0.3 mg/m3[stel]
Nickel sulfide roasting, fume and dust1.0 mg/m3
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm
Other JurisdictionNickel compoundOEL
ACGIH 2020 TLVElemental1.5 mg/m3[i]
Insoluble0.2 mg/m3[i]
Soluble0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel subsulfide0.1 mg/m3[i]
Nickel carbonyl0.05 ppm [c]
mg/m3 = milligrams per cubic metre
i = inhalable fraction
ppm = parts per million
c = ceiling limit
stel = short term exposure limit (15 min. maximum)
em = exposure must be reduced to a minimum
ACGIH = American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists
TLV = threshold limit value

Canadian environmental guidelines and standards*

BC’s Source Drinking Water Quality Guidelines80 µg/L2020[23]
Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives1 hour: 6 µg/m32005[24]
Annual Average: 0.05 µg/m32005 [24]
Manitoba Ambient Air Quality Criteria24 hour: 2 µg/m3 MAC2005[25]
Ontario Ambient Air Quality Criteria24 hour (Ni in PM10): 0.1 µg/m32016[26]
24 hour (Ni in TSP): 0.2 µg/m32016[26]
Annual (Ni in PM10): 0.02 µg/m32016[26]
Annual (Ni in TSP): 0.04 µg/m32016[26]
Ontario’s Air Pollution – Local Air Quality RegulationAnnual standard: 0.04 µg/m3; Prohibited discharge into the air if the concentration of nickel exceeds the standard2020[27]
Quebec’s Clean Air Regulation 24 hour limit: 0.014 µg/m3 (measured in PM10); Prohibited discharge into the air if the concentration of nickel exceeds the standard2014[28]
BC’s Contaminated Sites Regulation,
BC Reg 375/96
Sets soil standards for the protection of human health:
Agricultural and low density residential sites: 450 μg/g
Urban park and high density residential sites: 900 μg/g
Commercial sites: 3,000 μg/g
Industrial sites: 80,000 μg/g


Drinking water: 80 µg/L

*Standards are legislated and legally enforceable, while guidelines (including Ontario ambient air quality criteria) describe concentrations of contaminants in the environment (e.g. air, water) that are protective against adverse health, environmental, or aesthetic (e.g. odour) effects
µg/m3 = micrograms per cubic metre
μg/g = micrograms per gram
µg/L = micrograms per litre
MAC = maximum acceptable concentration
PM10 = particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter
TSP = total suspended particulate

Canadian agencies/organizations

Health CanadaDSL – eight nickel compounds are included (already risk managed)2006[30]
CEPASchedule 1, paragraph ‘a’1999[31]
National Classification System for Contaminated SitesRank: “High hazard”2008[32]
PMRA list of formulantsList 4B: List 4B contains formulants, some of which may be toxic, for which there are sufficient data to reasonably conclude that the specific use pattern of the pest control product will not adversely affect public health and the environment.2020[33]
Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release InventoryNPRI Part (Threshold Category): 1A, Reportable to NPRI if manufactured, processed, or otherwise used at quantities greater than: 10 tonnes. Total of the pure element and the equivalent weight of the element contained in any compound, alloy or mixture.2016[34]
DSL = domestic substance list
CEPA = Canadian Environmental Protection Act

Nickel and its compounds were not included in other Canadian government guidelines, standards, or chemical listings reviewed.

Main Uses

Nickel compounds are used in electroplating, various pigments, and nickel-cadmium batteries. They also act as intermediates in other reactions.[7] The largest use of nickel worldwide is in stainless steel (65% of global usage) and other alloys (20% of usage).[35] Pure nickel is also used as a catalyst and in magnets, electrical contacts and electrodes, spark plugs, machinery parts, and surgical and dental prostheses.[1]

Canadian Production and Trade

In 2014, four Canadian provinces (Manitoba, Newfoundland, Ontario, and Quebec) had active nickel mines.[36] Total production from those mines that year was over 218,000 tonnes,[36] with the largest amount originating from the Sudbury area.[37]

Production and trade

Canadian Production218,233 t2014[36]
Export10,124 t of ‘nickel ores and concentrates’2015[38]
Export128,678 t of ‘unwrought nickel’2015[38]
Import12,826 t of ‘nickel ores and concentrates’2015[38]
Import1,360 t of ‘unwrought nickel’2015[38]
t = tonne

Environmental Exposures Overview

The primary source of exposure to nickel for most Canadians is food and water.[7] However, nickel is not carcinogenic via ingestion; inhalation exposure is the only pathway linked to cancer.

Nickel is found naturally in soil and in meteorites. It is also released and transported in the environment from windblown dust and volcanic eruptions.[4] Anthropogenic sources include nickel mining and industries that produce alloys or nickel compounds. Oil and coal burning power plants and trash incinerators are additional sources.[4] The type of nickel in the atmosphere depends on the emission source.[4] CAREX Canada estimates that nickel concentrations in outdoor air (moderate data quality) and indoor air (low data quality) do not result in an elevated risk of cancer.

Searches of Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and the US Household Products Database yielded the following results on current potential for exposure to nickel in Canada:

NPRI and US Household Products Database

NPRI 2015[39]
Search term: ‘nickel and its compounds’
Released into Environment297 tPetroleum refineries, power generation, nickel
refineries, mining and foundries (268 facilities)
Disposed of214,996 t
Sent to off-site recycling4,385 t
t = tonne
US Household Products 2015[40]
Search TermQuantityProduct Type
‘nickel’5Electrical grease, batteries, and concrete colourant

For more information, see the environmental exposure estimate for nickel.

Occupational Exposures Overview

The main routes of occupational exposure to nickel include inhaling particles and fumes, and dermal contact.[1]

CAREX Canada estimates that approximately 117,000 Canadians are exposed to nickel in their workplace. The largest industrial groups exposed to nickel are commercial and industrial machinery and equipment repair and maintenance, motor vehicle parts manufacturing, and architectural and structural metals manufacturing.

The largest occupational groups exposed to nickel are welders (working with stainless steel), followed by machine tool operators, construction millwrights, and industrial mechanics. Other occupations where exposure to nickel may take place include mechanics, dental technologists, painters and coaters, and workers in nickel refineries or nickel processing plants. Occupations that involve producing nickel alloy and stainless steel, welding, electroplating, grinding, and cutting operations may be exposed as well.[4]

According to the Burden of Occupational Cancer in Canada project, occupational exposure to nickel leads to approximately 170 lung cancers each year in Canada, based on past exposures (1961-2001).[41,42] This amounts to 0.7% of lung cancer cases diagnosed annually, and does not include the burden of lung cancer due to nickel exposure during welding, which is captured in the welding fumes estimate. Most occupational lung cancers associated with nickel exposure occur among workers in the manufacturing sector. These cancers also occur among workers in mining, oil, and gas extraction sector.[42]

For detailed estimates of exposure to nickel, see the occupational exposures tab.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Materialscientist

1. National Toxicology Program (NTP). 14th report on carcinogens for Nickel (2016) (PDF)
3. ASM International. Nickel, Cobalt and Their Alloys (2000) (see page 4) (PDF)
4. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Nickel (2004) (PDF)
5. Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET). Hazardous Substances Data Bank (Search term: ‘Nickel’)
6. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monograph summary, Volume 49 (1990) (PDF)
7. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monograph summary, Volume 100C (2012) (PDF)
13. Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Regulation 5,12 Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (2018)
14. Government of the Northwest Territories. Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, R-039-2015 (2020) (PDF)
16. The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII). Government of Nunavut’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, Nu Reg 003-2016 (2010)
18. Government of Prince Edward Island. Occupational Health and Safety Act Regulations Chapter 0-1 (2013) (PDF)
20. Government of Saskatchewan. The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 1996 (2016) (PDF)
21. The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII). Yukon’s Occupational Health Regulations, O.I.C. 1986/164 (2020) (PDF)
22. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Annotated PELs (2020)
23. Government of British Columbia. Source Drinking Water Quality Guidelines (2020) (PDF)
24. Alberta Environment and Parks. Ambient Air Quality Objectives (2019)
25. Government of Manitoba. Ambient Air Quality Guidelines (2005) (PDF)
26. Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. Ontario’s Ambient Air Quality Criteria (2019)
28. Government of Quebec. Clean Air Regulation, Q-2, r. 4.1 (2020)
29. Government of British Columbia. Contaminated Sites Regulation B.C. Reg. 375/96 (2019)
30. Health Canada. Prioritization of the DSL (2004)
31. Environment and Climate Change Canada. CEPA List of Toxic Substances (1999)
32. Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. National Classification System for Contaminated Sites (PDF) (2008)
35. Nickel Institute. Nickel Metal – The Facts (2016)
36. Natural Resources Canada. Annual Statistics of Mineral Production (2015)
37. US Geological Survey (USGS). 2013 Minerals Yearbook Nickel (2013) (PDF)
38. International Trade Centre. TradeMap (Free subscription required)
39. Environment and Climate Change Canada. National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) Facility Search (Substance name: ‘Nickel’)
40. US Household Products Database (HPD). Household Products (Search term: ‘Nickel’)
41. Labrèche F, Kim J, Song C, Pahwa M, Calvin BG, Arrandale VH, McLeod CB, Peters CE, Lavoué J, Davies HW, Nicol AM. “The current burden of cancer attributable to occupational exposures in Canada.” Prev Med 2019;122:128-39.
42. Occupational Cancer Research Centre. Burden of Occupational Cancer (2017)


Other Resources

  1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). ToxFAQ Sheet: Nickel (2005) (PDF)
  2. International Nickel Study Group website

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