J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 1999;37(2):239-58. doi: 10.1081/clt-100102423.


Nickel is an essential element for at least several animal species. These animal studies associate nickel deprivation with depressed growth, reduced reproductive rates, and alterations of serum lipids and glucose. Although there is substantial evidence of an essential status for nickel in animals, a deficiency state in humans has not been clearly defined. Nickel is a silver-white metal with siderophilic properties that facilitate the formation of nickel-iron alloys. In contrast to the soluble nickel salts (chloride, nitrate, sulfate), metallic nickel, nickel sulfides, and nickel oxides are poorly water-soluble. Nickel carbonyl is a volatile liquid at room temperature that decomposes rapidly into carbon monoxide and nickel. Drinking water and food are the main sources of exposure for the general population with the average American diet containing about 300 micrograms Ni/d. Nickel is highly mobile in soil, particularly in acid soils. There is little evidence that nickel compounds accumulate in the food chain. Nickel is not a cumulative toxin in animals or in humans. Almost all cases of acute nickel toxicity result from exposure to nickel carbonyl. The initial effects involve irritation of the respiratory tract and nonspecific symptoms. Patients with severe poisoning develop intense pulmonary and gastrointestinal toxicity. Diffuse interstitial pneumonitis and cerebral edema are the main cause of death. Sodium diethyldithiocarbamate is an investigational drug used to chelate nickel following exposure to nickel carbonyl. Nickel is a common sensitizing agent with a high prevalence of allergic contact dermatitis. Nickel and nickel compounds are well-recognized carcinogens. However, the identity of the nickel compound or compounds, which cause the increased risk of cancer, remains unclear. Currently, there are little epidemiological data to indicate that exposure to metallic nickel increases the risk of cancer, or that exposure to the carcinogenic forms of nickel causes cancer outside the lung and the nasal cavity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environmental Pollutants / pharmacokinetics
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Nickel / chemistry
  • Nickel / pharmacokinetics
  • Nickel / toxicity*
  • Occupational Exposure


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Nickel