Less allergies with nickel-free coins

The Riksbank (Swedish central bank) is introducing nickel-free coins and thus improving the health of many people with allergies. This is something for which Professor emerita Carola Lidén at the Institute of Environmental Medicine is chiefly responsible.

Carola Lidén. Photo: Christopher Hunt.

Text: Maja Lundbäck, first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap no. 4/2016

Why was it so important that the new coins were nickel-free?
“Nickel is one of the most common causes of contact allergy. Fifteen to twenty per cent of all women and five per cent of all men are affected. Hand eczema is a common symptom. As the risk is dependent on the exposure of skin to nickel, it is important to reduce the sources of nickel exposure. Coins are a major source of this exposure for checkout assistants, but also for consumers who are walking around with coins in their pockets.”

How did you work together with the Riksbank when the new coins were decided?
“The Riksbank was tasked with conducting a review and producing new notes and coins. When they were going to conduct a health risk assessment, I was contacted as an expert on nickel allergy. The Riksbank understood that they could do something about this and now all new coins are nickel-free and the old ones are being phased out.”

What rules are there?
“The EU’s chemicals regulation REACH restricts the amount of nickel that is released from jewellery, watches and other objects that come into prolonged contact with skin. This restriction came into force in 2000 and is based largely on our research. However, the European Chemicals Agency has decided that coins are exempted.”

How significant is the problem of nickel allergy?
“Nickel allergy has not decreased at the rate we had hoped, despite the EU restriction. One problem is that contact allergies are persistent. If you have become allergic, you remain so for the rest of your life. “

What else should become nickel-free?
“There is a notion that short-term contact with objects that release nickel does not involve any risk, but our research shows that repeated contact for seconds or minutes is sufficient to obtain a substantial dose. My proposal is that no objects intended to come into contact with skin should release nickel. This means tools, door handles, keys, sewing needles, bags, pens, mobile phones and laptops.”

Why is it taking so long to have an impact on the use of nickel?
“This is because there are competing interests; the health interests are in conflict with the financial interests of the nickel industry. When the United Kingdom introduced new coins a few years ago, I was contacted by a British dermatologist. We conducted a study of the new coins, which showed that they were releasing more nickel. But this time we were not able to influence the decision. However, ahead of the launch of the Euro, we were able to have an impact and at least the lower value coins became nickel-free.”

How big a difference will the new coins make to the prevalence of nickel allergy?
“I am certain that they will mean a great deal to those people who handle a lot of coins at work. But it will be difficult to measure the effect in the population. Exposure studies would need to be conducted.”