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EU: Europeans Allergic To Nickel Say, 'Keep The Change'

  • Jeremy Bransten

While money is sometimes blamed as the root of all evil, the saying is usually meant figuratively. But for at least one woman in the Czech Republic and possibly millions of other across Europe, the new euro currency could pose a literal danger to their health.

Prague, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nineteen-year-old Lenka -- a cashier in a shop on the Czech-German border -- first came down with a strange rash two weeks into the new year. "In mid-January, I started getting these red spots on my face. It looked like a rash. Then the spots disappeared. But in mid-February, the spots reappeared, and it was worse. The rash spread to most of my face. So I went to see a dermatologist," Lenka said.

The dermatologist advised Lenka to use different makeup or to switch to better-quality face cream. But Lenka suspected her rash could be related to her job, where she was frequently handling the new euro coins. When a change of makeup failed to clear her symptoms, Lenka went to see an allergist.

"I went to the hospital's allergy department. They did an allergy test using a euro coin, which they taped to my hand for two days. When they took the coin off, they saw that the test was positive. They determined that I have an allergy to nickel," Lenka said.

Although lower-denomination euro cents are made of metal alloys that contain no nickel, the one-and two-euro coins -- by contrast -- are nickel-rich.

Lenka is not alone in her sensitivity to nickel. In fact, as Carola Liden, a dermatologist at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute told RFE/RL, nickel allergies affect many people. Among women, who suffer greater daily exposure to nickel through jewelry and other accessories, the percentage is especially high.

"[It's] 10 to 15 percent. It's very, very frequent. And it's also known that around 30 to 40 percent of persons who have a nickel allergy do also develop hand eczema. There are many different contacts contributing to this nickel contamination of the hands. For a person working as a cashier, the intense handling of coins may contribute to this nickel hand eczema," Liden said.

Sometimes, as in Lenka's case, the eczema spreads to other parts of the body, causing pain and temporary disfigurement.

"After skin contact with objects that release nickel, you risk developing contact dermatitis, and that can be severe, because if you have contact dermatitis on the hands, you may have blisters and fissuring and scaling and this does often cause people to go on sick leave. And in some type of occupations, people do even have to change their jobs. So this nickel allergy may have a far-reaching effect," Liden said.

Liden should know. Together with British dermatologist Stephen Carter, she conducted an extensive study measuring the amount of nickel released by different European coins during normal human contact. The two researchers found that two minutes of handling and sweaty palms are sufficient to trigger the release of enough nickel into the human body to cause a nickel-sensitive person to have an allergic reaction. Study results were published last year.

Citing the test results, Sweden proposed that the EU consider minting all of its coins with nickel-free alloys. The EU decided against the recommendation.

"There was a very intense debate in the European Union among the mint directors and ministers of finance before they decided, because it was proposed by Sweden that all the euro coins should be made of nickel-free alloys. But there was strong opposition against this, and it was also judged by different parties that the nickel in coins was not so important for nickel allergies. But this, of course, can be disputed," Liden said.

So why were EU ministers so much in favor of coinage that could cause millions of their citizens literally to break out in a rash? To be fair, the percentage of nickel-rich coins in the euro currency is actually lower than in many national currencies, since it is limited to just the one- and two-euro pieces. But why even have these if the danger of allergies was known to exist?

Contacted by RFE/RL, a spokesman for the European Central Bank who wished to remain anonymous, disputes Liden's findings. "The nickel in the one- and two-euro coins is not directly in contact with the hands of users. Just imagine you have a coin in front of you, and you make a slice of the coin. The nickel is inside the coin. When we conceived these coins, we were aware of that, and we took all the necessary measures and research to avoid any problem of this kind."

Despite what the European Central Bank and EU ministers say is their concern for public health, they were careful to exclude euro coinage from the EU Nickel Directive, which limits the use of nickel in objects intended to come in direct contact with the skin, such as jewelry, watches, buttons, and eyeglass frames. The bank spokesman cited practical considerations.

"Nickel has higher properties when it comes to recognizing a coin. For instance, in coin machines -- automats -- nickel enables the machine to recognize the coin," the bank official said.

Although this may be true, what the EU does not publicize is that France's Pacific island of New Caledonia harbors one-quarter of the world's known nickel reserves. A new smelter is currently being built. Islanders -- and mainland France -- stand to profit handsomely from the millions of nickel-rich one- and two-euro coins that are being minted now and will be in the future.

That's small comfort for Lenka, who will most likely have to look for another job.

"The doctors recommended that I stop working with euros, that I would likely have constant problems if I didn't because when I'm at home, the rash disappears. It disappears slowly, but when I returned to work it would all start up again. So I will either have to hand in my notice or leave my job due to health reasons. I don't know," Lenka said.

While many of her compatriots can't wait to join the EU and the euro zone, Lenka hopes that day does not come for a long time.