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Are You at Risk of Metal Fume Fever or Polymer Fume Fever?

Two welders working with welding tools and wearing PPE to protect against metal fume fever.

For most people, exposure to metal fumes at a high level is not very likely, but there is still a risk if you or someone close to you works with certain metals. One common call we receive at the poison center is about overheating  Teflon® and if this can cause metal fume fever. If Teflon® is heated to a high temperature, it releases fumes that can cause polymer fume fever. In this article, we’ll look at these two types of exposures, how they are different, and ways to protect yourself and your family.  

What is metal fume fever?

Metal fume fever is a result of someone inhaling tiny airborne particles that have metallic oxides, such as zinc and other metallic compounds. This condition is commonly associated with the inhalation of zinc oxide fumes but other metals such as steel, cadmium, lead, iron, aluminum, titanium, and more can give off fumes causing, metal fume fever. It is also known as welding shivers or metal dust fever. 

The development of metal fume fever revolves around the inhalation and later systemic distribution of zinc oxide particles. Upon entering the respiratory tract, zinc oxide fumes trigger an inflammatory response characterized by the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and activation of immune cells. Think of this response as your body’s first line of defense. Fever and systemic symptoms are the result of this immune cascade, mimicking an acute infectious process. The response essentially helps identify and attack invaders protecting the body. 

Potential metal fume exposures

While metal fume exposure is commonly associated with industrial settings, the hazards can extend beyond the workplace and into home environments. DIY enthusiasts, hobbyists, and individuals engaging in home improvement projects are in danger of exposure to metal fumes as well. Understanding the potential sources and risks of metal fumes at home is crucial for safeguarding household health and well-being.

Welding and Soldering: DIY welding and soldering activities, such as automotive repairs, metal sculpture, or electronics assembly, can generate metal fumes. Heating metals to high temperatures during these processes releases airborne particles, including hazardous metals like zinc, lead, and cadmium.

Metal Cutting and Grinding: Cutting, grinding, and sanding metal surfaces, whether for crafting, metalworking, or home renovations, produce fine metal particles that can become airborne. Common activities like using angle grinders, rotary tools, or metal saws generate metal dust and fumes, posing inhalation risks if adequate ventilation is lacking.

Metal Cleaning and Surface Treatment: Chemical cleaning agents and abrasive solutions used to remove rust, paint, or coatings from metal surfaces may contain toxic compounds. Aerosolized particles and vapors generated during these activities can contribute to indoor air pollution and expose individuals to harmful substances.

Symptoms of metal fume fever

Metal fume fever typically begins within a few hours of exposure to zinc oxide fumes. However, the exact onset may vary depending on individual susceptibility and the concentration of fumes inhaled. 

Afflicted individuals often experience flu-like symptoms, which include: 

  • fever
  • chills
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • muscle aches
  • nausea 

These symptoms, although reminiscent of influenza, tend to resolve within 24 to 48 hours once the exposure is stopped. 

A Teflon pan sitting on a stove top.

What is polymer fume fever?

In addition to metal fumes, another toxicity caused by fumes in industrial settings and home environments is polymer fume fever. Unlike its metallic counterpart, polymer fume fever happens from inhaling fumes generated during the heating or combustion of certain synthetic materials. Understanding the risks, signs, and symptoms of polymer fume fever is important for safeguarding respiratory health in diverse settings.

Potential polymer fume exposures

Polymer fume fever is a result of overheating synthetic materials such as plastics and resins. But here are a few examples of what types of materials can be a higher risk for polymer fume fever.

Plastics and Polymers:  Heating or welding thermoplastic materials, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and decomposition byproducts into the air. Common applications include plastic fabrication (3D printing, plastic welding), polymer processing (missing or forming compounds), and recycling operations.

Synthetic Resins and Coatings: Industrial processes involving the application of synthetic resins, adhesives, or coatings can emit fumes containing hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, toluene, and styrene. Activities such as painting, varnishing, or laminating may generate polymer fumes in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation.

Household Products: Certain consumer products, including non-stick cookware, bakeware, and kitchen appliances coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE or Teflon®) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), can release toxic fumes when overheated. Improper use or high-temperature cooking methods may lead to polymer decomposition and fume release.

Symptoms of polymer fume fever

Polymer fume fever manifests as a collection of flu-like symptoms following inhalation of synthetic fumes, typically resolving within 24 to 48 hours. The onset and severity of symptoms vary depending on the duration and intensity of exposure, as well as individual susceptibility factors. 

Common symptoms of polymer fume fever include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Fatigue and malaise
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Respiratory irritation (e.g., coughing, chest tightness)

While polymer fume fever is generally self-limiting and reversible, chronic or repeated exposure to polymer fumes may worsen respiratory conditions and contribute to long-term health complications, including airway inflammation, asthma, and pulmonary fibrosis. Call the Missouri Poison Center if you or someone close by is experiencing any of these symptoms.

“Teflon® flu”

Teflon® flu, informally known as polymer fume fever when specifically associated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), represents a type of polymer fume fever resulting from the overheating or thermal degradation of Teflon®-coated products. This situation commonly occurs during the cooking or heating of non-stick cookware, bakeware, or kitchen appliances coated with PTFE, leading to the release of toxic fumes containing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and other chemical byproducts. 

Symptoms of Teflon® flu copy those of polymer fume fever, including fever, headache, nausea, and respiratory irritation, typically resolving within a short period after stopping the exposure. While temporary, Teflon® flu underscores the importance of proper ventilation, temperature control, and caution when using Teflon®-coated products to minimize the risk of respiratory distress and promote safer cooking practices in households.

Preventing Metal and Polymer Fume Fever

To help prevent polymer or metal fume fever in your work environment or at home, follow these safety principles for working with fumes.

Ventilation and Air Filtration: Utilize exhaust fans, open windows, or operate air purifiers equipped with HEPA filters to lessen indoor air pollution and facilitate the removal of airborne contaminants.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Wear appropriate respiratory protection, such as N95 respirators or respirator masks with P100 filters, when participating in activities with potential metal fume generation. Additionally, use gloves and protective clothing to minimize skin contact with hazardous substances.

Safe Work Practices: Adhere to safe handling procedures, including minimizing dust generation, wetting surfaces to suppress dust, and avoiding abrasive methods that produce airborne particles. Work in well-ventilated areas whenever possible and clean up metal debris promptly to prevent accidental ingestion or inhalation.

Material Selection for Safer Alternatives: Opt for low-emission materials and products with reduced metal content when possible. Choose water-based or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) cleaning agents and coatings to minimize exposure to toxic substances. Choose environmentally friendly and low-emission options for consumer goods and industrial applications whenever doable.

Treatment for metal and polymer fume exposure

For metal and polymer fume exposures, most of the symptoms will resolve in 24 to 48 hours. If you or someone you know has been exposed to metal fumes or polymer fumes and are experiencing either metal fume fever or polymer fume fever, follow these steps:

  1. Move away from the source causing the fumes.
  2. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.  
  3. Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help manage fever and body aches.
  4. Stay away from the source of exposure and avoid future exposure by ventilating the area or wearing the proper PPE.

If you or someone you know is exposed to the fumes that may cause metal fume fever or polymer fume fever,  call the Missouri Poison Center right away at 1-800-222-1222 to receive immediate first aid and instructions from one of our specially trained nurses or pharmacists. 

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