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Are Welding Fumes Dangerous?

October 28, 2016

What are welding fumes?

OSHA defines welding fumes as fumes that are generated by the manual metal arc or oxy-acetylene welding of iron, mild steel, or aluminum.  These fumes are an elaborate mixture of metallic oxides, silicates and fluorides.  Welding fumes are formed when metal is heated above the boiling point and vapors condense into fine, but solid, particles.  Welding fumes contain particles from the electrode as well as the material being welded.

 

Are all welding fumes the same?

No.  Welding fumes contain oxides of the metals in the material being welded.  Different metals produce different fumes.

  • Fluxes containing silica or fluoride produce amorphous silica, metallic silicates and fluoride fumes.
  • Fumes from mild steel welding contain mostly iron with small amounts of additive metals (chromium, nickel, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, titanium, cobalt, copper, etc.)
  • Stainless steels have larger amounts of chromium or nickel in the fume, and lesser amounts of iron.
  • Nickel alloys have much more nickel in the fume and very little iron.

 

How do coatings change the composition of welding fumes?

Fumes come from coatings and residues on metal being welded. Many ingredients in coatings can have toxic effects. These ingredients include:

  • Metal working fluids, oils, and rust inhibitors
  • Zinc on galvanized steel (this vaporizes to produce zinc oxide fume)
  • Cadmium plating
  • Paints and solvents vaports
  • Lead oxide primer paints
  • Some plastic coatings

 

Metal Coatings – A Source of Hazardous Fumes

metal-coatings

How do I remove the coatings?

  • Remove coatings from the weld area to minimize the fume. Welding quality will also improve after coating removal.
  • Use stripping products, and remember to remove additional residues before welding.
  • Use wet slurry vacuum removal techniques for removing very toxic coatings.
  • Do not grind coatings – this can be toxic!

 

What factors affect a worker’s exposure to welding fumes?

  • The type of welding process.
  • Composition of welding rod.
  • Filler metals and base metal used.
  • Type of coatings present.
  • Location of welding – in an open area or confined space
  • Type of ventilation controls (mechanical or local).
  • Work practices of welder (e.g. remove coatings, clean surfaces, stay upwind when welding in open or outdoor).

 

What are welding gases?

Welding gases are gases used or produced during welding and cutting processes like shielding gases or gases produced by the decomposition of fluxes or from the interaction of ultraviolet light or high temperatures with gases or vapors in the air.

 

What are examples of welding gases?

Gases used in welding and cutting processes include:

  • Shielding gases such as carbon dioxide, argon, helium, etc.
  • Fuel gases such as acetylene, propane, butane, etc.
  • Oxygen, used with fuel gases and also in small amounts in some shielding gas mixtures

 

Gases produced from welding and cutting processes include:

  • Carbon dioxide from the decomposition of fluxes
  • Carbon monoxide from the breakdown of carbon dioxide shielding gas in arc welding
  • Ozone from the interaction of electric arc with atmospheric oxygen
  • Nitrogen oxides from the heating of atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen
  • Hydrogen chloride and phosgene produced by the reaction between ultraviolet light and the vapors from chlorinated hydrocarbon degreasing solvents (e.g., trichloroethylene, TCE)

 

Gases are also produced from the thermal breakdown of coatings:

  • Polyurethane coatings can produce hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and isocyanate vapors.
  • Epoxy coatings can produce carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
  • Vinyl paints can produce hydrogen chloride.
  • Phosphate rust-inhibiting paints can release phosphine during welding processes.
  • Minimizing exposure to degreasing solvent vapors.

 

What will a particular type of welding fume do to my health? (*Table 1)

 

Fume Type Source Health Effect
Aluminum Aluminum component of some alloys, e.g., Inconels, copper, zinc, steel, magnesium, brass and filler materials. Respiratory irritant.
Beryllium Hardening agent found in copper, magnesium, aluminum alloys and electrical contacts. “Metal Fume Fever.” A carcinogen. Other chronic effects include damage to the respiratory tract.
Cadmium Oxides Stainless steel containing cadmium or plated materials, zinc alloy. Irritation of respiratory system, sore and dry throat, chest pain and breathing difficulty. Chronic effects include kidney damage and emphysema. Suspected carcinogen.
Chromium Most stainless-steel and high-alloy materials, welding rods. Also used as plating material. Increased risk of lung cancer. Some individuals may develop skin irritation. Some forms are carcinogens (hexavalent chromium).
Copper Alloys such as Monel, brass, bronze. Also some welding rods. Acute effects include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, nausea and “Metal Fume Fever.”
Fluorides Common electrode coating and flux material for both low- and high-alloy steels. Acute effect is irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Long-term exposures may result in bone and joint problems. Chronic effects also include excess fluid in the lungs.
Iron Oxides The major contaminant in all iron or steel welding processes. Siderosis – a benign form of lung disease caused by particles deposited in the lungs. Acute symptoms include irritation of the nose and lungs. Tends to clear up when exposure stops.
Lead Solder, brass and bronze alloys, primer/coating on steels. Chronic effects to nervous system, kidneys, digestive system and mental capacity. Can cause lead poisoning.
Manganese Most welding processes, especially high-tensile steels. “Metal Fume Fever.” Chronic effects may include central nervous system problems.
Molybdenum Steel alloys, iron, stainless steel, nickel alloys. Acute effects are eye, nose and throat irritation, and shortness of breath.
Nickel Stainless steel, Inconel, Monel, Hastelloy and other high-alloy materials, welding rods and plated steel. Acute effect is irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Increased cancer risk has been noted in occupations other than welding. Also associated with dermatitis and lung problems.
Vanadium Some steel alloys, iron, stainless steel, nickel alloys. Acute effect is irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Chronic effects include bronchitis, retinitis, fluid in the lungs and pneumonia.
Zinc Galvanized and painted metal. Metal Fume Fever

 

 What is the source and subsequent effect of certain welding gases?  (*Table 2)

 

Gas Type Source Health Effect
Carbon Monoxide Formed in the arc. Absorbed readily into the bloodstream, causing headaches, dizziness or muscular weakness. High concentrations may result in unconsciousness and death
Hydrogen Fluoride Decomposition of rod coatings. Irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract. Overexposure can cause lung, kidney, bone and liver damage. Chronic exposure can result in chronic irritation of the nose, throat and bronchi.
Nitrogen Oxides Formed in the arc. Eye, nose and throat irritation in low concentrations. Abnormal fluid in the lung and other serious effects at higher concentrations. Chronic effects include lung problems such as emphysema.
Oxygen Deficiency Welding in confined spaces, and air displacement by shielding gas. Dizziness, mental confusion, asphyxiation and death.
Ozone Formed in the welding arc, especially during plasma-arc, MIG and TIG processes. Acute effects include fluid in the lungs and hemorrhaging. Very low concentrations (e.g., one part per million) cause headaches and dryness of the eyes. Chronic effects include significant changes in lung function.

 

 What is the source and subsequent effect of certain welding vapors?  (*Table 3)

Gas Type Source Health Effect
Aldehydes (such as formaldehyde) Metal coating with binders and pigments. Degreasing solvents Irritant to eyes and respiratory tract.
Diisocyanates Metal with polyurethane paint. Eye, nose and throat irritation. High possibility of sensitization, producing asthmatic or other allergic symptoms, even at very low exposures.
Phosgene Metal with residual degreasing solvents. (Phosgene is formed by reaction of the solvent and welding radiation.) Severe irritant to eyes, nose and respiratory system. Symptoms may be delayed.
Phosphine Metal coated with rust inhibitors. (Phosphine is formed by reaction of the rust inhibitor with welding radiation.) Irritant to eyes and respiratory system, can damage kidneys and other organs.

Source: Tables 1 to 3 are from Work Safe Alberta’s Welder’s Guide to Hazards of Welding Gases and Fumes, 2009

 

What are the hazards from welding gases?

Hazards from welding gases include: asphyxiation (lack of oxygen), fire or explosion, and toxicity

 

 How can I prevent exposure to welding gases?

It is important to follow manufacturer’s instructions, safety data sheets (SDSs), and safety protocols to minimize the hazards of welding gases.

  • Use substitute materials such as water-based cleaners or high flash point solvents.
  • Cover the degreaser baths or containers.
  • Do not weld on surfaces that are still wet with a degreasing solvent.
  • Do not weld near degreasing baths.
  • Do not use chlorinated hydrocarbon degreasers.
  • Have adequate ventilation in a workplace to prevent the displacement or enrichment of oxygen and to prevent the accumulation of flammable atmospheres.
  • Use local exhaust ventilation systems to remove fume and gases from the welder’s breathing zone.
  • Wear appropriate respiratory protective equipment. The respiratory protective equipment should not be used to replace the use of mechanical ventilation.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information, please contact Clean Air America at 866.665.1829 or visit our website at www.clean-air.com.

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