Overview: Cobalt poisoning, or any type of metal poisoning, can be tricky to detect. It can cause a host of problems, yet it is an uncommon diagnosis among emergency room physicians. People typically get cobalt poisoning from breathing or swallowing large amounts, or having constant contact with the skin. Recently, medical professionals have raised concerns about cobalt toxicity with certain types of orthopedic implants.
Patients with cobalt poisoning may experience
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Thyroid problems
- Kidney toxicity
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Respiratory problems
The symptoms may appear somewhat scattered, but can become a serious problem if left untreated. Cardiomyopathy, for instance, enlargens and weakens the heart. This can make it difficult to pump blood around the body and ultimately cause heart failure. Peripheral neuropathy means that there is damage to the peripheral nervous system; it may manifest as a tingling or burning sensation.
Cobalt poisoning can result from breathing or swallowing large amounts of cobalt, or having it come into contact with the skin. Breathing in cobalt can be a serious problem for those who work in an industrial setting, where is a lot of drilling, polishing and other processes that produce dangerous amounts of cobalt dust.
Cobalt poisoning is also a concern for those who have a metal-on-metal hip replacement. Unlike older implants, which used plastic and ceramic, the all-metal design uses a metal ball that rotates inside a metal cup. These components rub together through wear, and the implant sheds cobalt ions (most metal hips have both cobalt and chromium). Cobalt toxicity that results from this type of implant is known as arthroprosthetic cobaltism. For metal hip wearers, it may result in soft tissue reactions or osteolysis (bone loss).
Cobalt is found in batteries, alloys, chemistry sets, drill bits and machine tools, dyes and pigments, magnets and tires.
If you think you have a cobalt poisoning emergency, call the National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222). If you suspect elevated cobalt ion levels from a metal-on-metal hip implant, speak to your physician or orthopaedic surgeon as well. There is currently no standard kit for testing cobalt levels, but the normal excretion range is 0.1 to 1.2 micrgrams per liter in blood serum and 0.1 and 2.2 micrograms per liter in the urine.