Metal Fume Fever

Metal fume fever is an acute allergic condition experienced by many welders during their career lifetimes. It is primarily caused by exposure to zinc oxide fume (ZnO) in the workplace.
The main source of exposure is breathing fumes that are produced from welding, cutting, or brazing on galvanized metal. Because galvanized steel is becoming more common in the industry, welders are working with it more frequently. Copper and magnesium may cause similar effects.

Effects of Zinc Oxide Overexposure

When overexposed to zinc oxide fumes, a welder will experience a flu-like illness (metal fume fever). Symptoms of metal fume fever include:

  • headache
  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • thirst
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • chest soreness
  • fatigue
  • gastrointestinal pain
  • weakness
  • tiredness

  • Symptoms of metal fume fever typically start several hours after exposure and the attack may last 6 to 24 hours. Complete recovery generally happens without intervention within 24 to 48 hours.

    Metal fume fever is more likely to occur after being away from the job (weekends or vacations).

    High levels of exposure can cause:

  • a metallic or sweet taste in the mouth
  • dry and irritated throat
  • thirst
  • and coughing at the time of the exposure

  • Several hours after exposure, a low–grade fever. This is followed by sweating and chills before body temperature returns to normal (in 1 to 4 hours). If you encounter these symptoms, contact a physician and have a medical evaluation.
    There is currently no information regarding the effects of long-term exposure to zinc oxide fumes.

    Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)

    The current OSHA standard for zinc oxide fume is 5 milligrams of zinc oxide fume per cubic meter of air (mg/m3) averaged over an eight–hour work shift.
    NIOSH recommends that the permissible exposure limit be changed to 5 mg/m3 averaged over a work shift of up to 10 hours per day, 40 hours per week, with a Short–Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 10 mg/m3 averaged over a 15–minute period.

    Resource: AWS Health and Fact Sheet No. 25 - Metal Fume Fever