Cobalt is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust. It is a very small part of our environment and very small amounts are needed for many animals and humans to stay healthy.
Cobalt poisoning can occur when you are exposed to large amounts of cobalt. There are three basic ways that cobalt can cause poisoning. You can swallow too much of it, breathe too much into your lungs, or have it come in constant contact with your skin.
This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
Alternative Names Cobalt chloride; Cobalt oxide; Cobalt sulfate
Cobalt is a component of vitamin B12, an essential vitamin.
Cobalt may also be found in:
- Chemistry/crystal sets
- Drill bits and machine tools
- Dyes and pigments (Cobalt Blue)
Note: This list may not be all-inclusive.
Usually you have to be exposed to high levels of cobalt for weeks to months to have symptoms. However, it is possible to have some symptoms if you swallow a large amount of cobalt at once.
The most worrisome form of cobalt poisoning occurs when you breathe too much into your lungs. This usually will only happen in industrial settings where large amounts of drilling, polishing, or other processes release fine particles containing cobalt into the air. Breathing in this cobalt dust can cause a lot of chronic lung problems. If you breathe in this substance for long periods, you will likely develop problems breathing similar to asthma or more permanent problems, such as pulmonary fibrosis.
Cobalt poisoning that occurs from constant contact with your skin will likely cause irritation and rashes that will go away slowly.
Swallowing a large amount of absorbable cobalt at one time is very rare and likely not too dangerous. This may cause nausea and vomiting. However, if you swallow a large amount of cobalt over longer periods of time, serious health problems can occur, including:
- Cardiomyopathy (a problem where your heart becomes big and floppy and has problems pumping blood)
- Possible nerve problems
- Thickening of your blood
- Thyroid problems
If you or someone you know has been exposed to cobalt, the first step is to leave the area and get fresh air. If cobalt came in contact with the skin, wash the area thoroughly.
Before Calling Emergency
If possible, determine the following information:
- Patient's age, weight, and condition (for example, is the person awake or alert?)
- Name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
- Time it was swallowed
- Amount swallowed
However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.
Poison Control, or a local emergency number
The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
See: Poison control center - emergency number
What to expect at the emergency room
If you are brought to the emergency room, it is likely because you either swallowed a large amount of cobalt or because you are starting to feel sick from long-term exposure.
Treatment for skin contact: Since these rashes are rarely serious, very little will be done. The area may be washed and a skin cream may be prescribed.
Treatment for lung involvement: Breathing problems will be treated based on your symptoms. Breathing treatments and medications to treat swelling and inflammation in your lungs may be prescribed. X-rays may be taken.
Treatment for swallowed cobalt: The health care team will treat your symptoms and order some blood tests. In the rare cases where you have large levels of cobalt in your blood, hemodialysis is performed and medications (antidotes) to reverse the effects of the poison may be given.
Persons who become sick from being exposed to large amounts of cobalt on one single occasion usually recover and have no long-term complications.
The symptoms and problems associated with long-term cobalt poisoning are rarely reversible. Persons who have such poisoning will likely have to take medicine for the rest of their life to control the symptoms.
Goldfrank LR, ed. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2006.
John E. Duldner, Jr., MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, Department of Emergency Medicine, Samaritan Regional Health System, Ashland, Ohio. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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