Toxicity assessment and health hazard classification of stainless steels

Published 22 September 2022

Stainless steels are widely used iron-based alloys that contain chromium and, typically, other alloying elements. The chromium(III)-rich surface oxide of stainless steels efficiently limits the release (bioaccessibility) of their metal constituents in most physiological environments, influencing the toxicity of the alloy. Of the constituents and impurities of stainless steels, nickel and cobalt are of particular interest, primarily due to skin sensitization and repeated-dose inhalation toxicity of nickel, and (inhalation) carcinogenicity of cobalt. A review of the available toxicological data on stainless steels, and the toxicological, mechanistic, and bioaccessibility data on their constituent metals supports the low toxicity and non-carcinogenicity of stainless steels. The comparative metal release, rather than the bulk composition of stainless steels, needs to be considered when assessing their health hazard classification according to the UN Globally Harmonized System, and the corresponding EU CLP regulation. As an illustrative example, a 28-day inhalation toxicity study on stainless steel powder showed no signs of lung toxicity at exposure levels at which significant toxicity would have been expected on the basis of its bulk nickel content. This finding is associated with the low bioaccessibility of nickel from the alloy in the lungs.

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