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November 16, 2009
Volume 87, Number 46
p. 56

Stealing Metal, Metal Allergy

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Legit or stolen?: Once metal gets into a scrapyard, it's hard to tell.

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If you are the type who can ignore ethical, moral, religious, and legal constraints on your behavior, then stealing stuff and reselling it makes plenty of business sense. After all, it's the ultimate in buying low and selling high. Which is why Gary Bush, a former law enforcement officer now with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in Washington, D.C., is not surprised by the rise in METAL THEFTS he has been seeing.

"Commodity markets are creeping up again," Bush says, which means metal thieves can reap more cash when they sell their take to scrapyards. Bush recalls one particularly brazen aluminum theft two years ago in Florida when the market for that metal was spiking: Thieves dismantled and stole an aluminum back porch that a homeowner had just installed. "I have seen everything," Bush says.

And he is seeing even more now that ISRI has set up A crime prevention and reporting system, it enables victims of metal theft to instantly describe and post a crime that other subscribers to the system—including police and scrap-metal dealers—will see in their e-mail in-boxes. They can then be on the lookout for thieves trying to unload stolen material.

Here's a sampling of the alerts posted on a late October day.

At 9:15 AM, 100 tobacco-drying racks made of old, but high-grade aluminum were filched from a location in Ocala, Fla. This alert included the description of a middle-aged, sandy-haired suspect with a mustache who was driving a Ford Ranger pickup. Meanwhile, at an Atlanta-area construction company, 700 steel wall braces, worth $160,000, were reported stolen. "It is possible that these braces might be going to a scrapyard locally," the registrants warned in their alert. At 10 PM, in Castaic, Calif., a tractor-trailer containing 6,682 pieces of copper tubing, worth $162,000, was taken. The tractor and trailer were recovered on Nov. 1, but the goods were gone. Thieves working in Cranberry Township, Pa., made for the most headshaking alert: They stole 32 bronze flower vases that attach to cemetery markers, collectively valued at $8,000.

Bush says the scientific community should be on guard, too. Steel vacuum chambers, electrical cables, chilling units stuffed with copper and aluminum tubing, and other metal-laden laboratory accoutrements all look like money to metal thieves, he warns.

For the most compassionate among you, you might be concerned that the scoundrels stealing metal—especially if it contains nickel, but also if it contains chromium, cobalt, gold, or palladium—could trigger a bout of CONTACT DERMATITIS, the most prevalent form of metal allergy in the general population. According to a report in the ACS journal Chemical Research in Toxicology (DOI: 10.1021/tx9002726), an estimated 17% of women and 3% of men are allergic to nickel, with symptoms that show mostly as rashes at the point of contact but can spread beyond that. Jewelry, especially earrings; buttons; cell phones; belt buckles; dental materials; joint prostheses and other medical implants; and leather are among the environmental exposures cited by allergy researchers Jacob P. Thyssen and Torkil Menné of the University of Copenhagen. By themselves, metal ions are too small to elicit immune responses, the researchers note. But if the ions penetrate the skin and then "form stable conjugates with proteins," the stage is set for an allergic response, they say.

Regulatory action in Europe to reduce allergenic metal exposure from consumer products, such as the Nickel Directive of 1994, has led to a decrease of prevalence of metal allergy there. But this particular metal allergy has been on the rise in Canada and the U.S., where nickel exposure is currently unregulated, the researchers note.

Ivan Amato wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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