By Sasha Madhavji, Special to Western News
Of the seemingly infinite list of things to which people can be allergic, metals do not usually come to mind. After all, we hold railings and cook with utensils, and certainly have a hand or two on an electronic device at all moments of the day.
But the entire periodic table of elements can cause allergic reactions, according to Yolanda Hedberg, professor in Western University’s Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Corrosion Science.
“About 35 per cent of the population is allergic to a metal,” said Hedberg, who came to Western from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden in October 2020 to continue her ground-breaking work on humans’ physiological reactions to metals, and has just been named the Wolfe-Western Fellow At-Large, an award acknowledging the work and promise of a young researcher and newly recruited faculty member.
“Many common allergic reactions can be traced to cosmetics, toiletries, clothes and jewellery – all of which also contain metals, whether in small or large amounts,” said Hedberg, who is studying how the human body can cause metal surfaces to corrode and how this morphing metal causes different reactions over time.
“At first, you may have a new ring or necklace and not notice any issues,” she said. “But over time, your body causes a reaction on the surface of the metal, and eventually that metal corrodes and you get a skin rash.”
Metal allergies can become severe, and even life-threatening. In addition, dental fillings and prosthetic joints can degrade slowly in the body, causing chronic pain and even cancer or neurodegenerative diseases.
“A rash from a new eyeshadow may not seem so serious, but metal allergies can be life-altering.,” said Hedberg, who has also studied the long-term health effects of metal inhalation in welders. “They take in a lungful of vaporized metal on the job, which triggers a strong immune response to fight off the particles. When it comes time to fight off a viral or bacterial infection, they no longer have the immune resources available.”
Hedberg’s strong background in chemistry and human physiology positions her uniquely to develop research into metal allergies and other metal-involved diseases that could have an impact on millions of Canadians.
“Western’s world-class imaging capabilities and surface analytical facilities make it a dream to be here,” she said.