Dermatitis and the New 5p Coins
‘Contact dermatitis’ is a generic term given to skin irritation caused by the skin coming into contact with something that irritates it. For some people, using antibacterial hand wash can trigger an attack (it makes the skin very itchy, red and sore and can become infected), whilst for others touching certain materials or animals can cause the skin to become inflamed, itchy and sore.
Sufferers can usually pinpoint what has caused the problem. It can start at any age and even if the sufferer has been in contact with something many times in previous years, they can suddenly become sensitive to it.
Nickel is often used in silver jewellery – it’s cheaper than pure silver so the finished item can be sold at a lower price, making it affordable and still attractive. Someone who has worn jewellery with nickel for years could develop an allergy to it that produces contact dermatitis. The sufferer will know what has caused the skin rash because it is usually localised so for example if a necklace has produced the reaction, the wearer will have a necklace-shaped rash around their neck!
The good news is that once the culprit-substance has been identified, steps can be taken to avoid it. So if a person is allergic to antibacterial hand wash, they can take their own hand wash with them if they are out and about so that they don’t ever have to use it.
Treatment is normally by steroid cream, avoiding the substance that causes the reaction, and sometimes antihistamines (the ones that cause drowsiness – take one at night to stop your skin from itching when you are asleep and stop the itch-scratch-itch cycle).
However, whilst people who are allergic to nickel might ordinarily just avoid cheap jewellery, plans are afoot by the Royal Mint to make the new 5p and 10p coins using a higher percentage of nickel than is used at present.
The existing 5p and 10p coins are made of 75% copper and 25% nickel (all mixed in together) but the new coins will be a bit thicker and have a nickel coating. It’s the nickel coating that might well cause problems for people since the skin will come into contact with pure nickel every time these coins are handled. That might not be such a problem for people who only need to handle cash every so often, but for people who work in shops the problem could be much more troublesome.
In an effort to change the Royal Mint’s mind (the Royal Mint says they’ll save about £8m with the changes) several dermatologists based at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield and St John’s Institute of Dermatology, London have written to the British Medical Council saying that there has been no effort to assess the level of risk posed by the planned coins.
The same plans were put in place in Sweden by their equivalent of the Royal Mint (the Central Bank) but were scrapped when a risk assessment ruled that nickel ‘poses unacceptable risks to health.’