For centuries, cobalt has been used to produce brilliant blue colors in glass, porcelain, pottery, tiles and enamels. This brittle, reflective gray compound found within the earth’s crust also plays a vital role in the health of humans and animals; it is an essential ingredient in vitamin B12 which helps to ensure proper brain function and aids in the formation of red blood cells. 1
But cobalt isn’t just an element to satisfy our visual and neurological senses. Cobalt is a powerhouse in industry. It is used in the manufacture of magnets for a wide-range of motors and devices. It is used to make rechargeable batteries and high-speed power tools. And it is used in catalysts for the chemical and petroleum industries. 2 But, by far, cobalt’s greatest use is in the manufacture of superalloys.
An alloy is a mixture of two or more metals. A superalloy, or high-performance alloy, is one that exhibits several key characteristics: excellent mechanical strength, resistance to thermal melting and deformation, good surface stability, and resistance to corrosion or oxidation. Superalloys are vital in manufacturing and crucial in such efforts as creating parts for gas turbine engines for jet planes. 2 Without cobalt, the safety and stability of these manufactured goods wouldn’t be possible.
However, as with many of nature’s gifts, there are potential risks in its use.
Cobalt derived its name from the German word kobold (goblin). Miners in medieval times came to believe that meddlesome elves switched their valuable metal ore with one that emitted poisonous fumes when burned. 1
The miners were correct about at least one thing: cobalt is potentially unsafe when burned – even at room temperatures.
Cobalt is odorless which presents a danger at the outset of utilization. The dusts emitted from producing industrial components such as alloyed tools, magnets or superalloys can enter a worker’s air space where the potential for inhalation can occur. If mixed with other elements, these gases and particulates can create an explosive mix, as cobalt dusts are combustible. 3 Of the two scenarios, occupational inhalation is the most common.
Overexposure from cobalt toxins can be separated into two symptomatic categories: acute (short term) and chronic (long-term). 4 Acute exposure is characterized by irritation of the eyes and skin. In some individuals, exposure can possibly cause an asthma-like attack. Chronic exposure can have similar effects to those of acute exposure but with the addition of more severe problems such as obstructive lung disease, reduced lung function, fibrotic changes and shortness of breath.
To protect workers from potential cobalt exposure, OSHA recommends defensive measures that include enclosure, ventilation and personal protective equipment.
At Air Systems Inc., we safeguard those who work within the cobalt and superalloy industries by offering our patented, superior air cleaning products for their company’s safety program implementation. Contact us today to speak to one of our skilled and experienced IAQ experts for a free clean air analysis.