Cobalt and cobalt-containing substances

What are they?

  • This screening assessment focuses on cobalt and cobalt-containing substances.
  • Cobalt is a naturally occurring element in the earth's crust. It is found in various forms such as minerals, oxides and salts.
  • Cobalt and cobalt-containing substances are also industrial chemicals mainly produced during mining processes. 

How are they used?

  • Cobalt and cobalt-containing substances are mostly used in metallurgical processes, in non-ferrous metal smelting and refining, as a component in alloys and carbides, in livestock feed supplements and fertilizers, hard material tools, paints and coatings, plastic, rubber, and batteries.
  • Based on the most recent data, elemental cobalt and some cobalt-containing substances are manufactured, imported or used in Canada in significant quantities. Other cobalt-containing substances are either naturally present or formed as a by-product.

Why did the Government of Canada assess them?

  • Cobalt and cobalt-containing substances were considered as part of the Substance Groupings Initiative of the Government of Canada's Chemicals Management Plan (CMP).
  • A number of substances included in this assessment were identified as priorities for assessment during the categorization of substances within the Domestic Substances List and/or were considered as a priority based on other human health concerns.
  • The current human health and ecological screening assessment focuses on the cobalt moiety (all forms of cobalt). As such, it is not limited to consideration of the cobalt-containing substances identified during the categorization process.
  • Four cobalt-containing substances included in this grouping were assessed in Batch 10 of the earlier Challenge Initiative of the CMP (elemental cobalt, cobalt chloride and two cobalt sulfates). These substances were found not to be harmful to human health or to the environment when considered as individual substances. However, these four substances were included in this screening assessment to consider exposure to cobalt from multiple cobalt-containing substances.

How are Canadians exposed to them?

  • The general population can be exposed to cobalt and cobalt-containing substances in food as a result of natural sources or human activities.
  • Exposure may also occur to a lesser extent from soil, household dust, air, drinking water and from natural sources or sources resulting from human activities.
  • Canadians may also be exposed through the use of products containing cobalt, such as paints and coatings, cosmetics, and natural health products.
  • Exposure may also occur while in the proximity to current or historical industrial point sources, such as mines.

How are they released into the environment?

  • Although found naturally in the environment, cobalt and cobalt-containing substances may be released to the environment during cobalt production (for example, mining).
  • Release of cobalt and cobalt-containing substances may also occur as a result of their production (for example, as a by-product) or use in activities such as mining, smelting and refining activities as well as fossil fuel combustion.
  • Releases may also occur during the manufacture, import, use and disposal of cobalt and cobalt-containing substances, products and manufactured items.
  • Following releases to the environment, cobalt and cobalt-containing substances may enter water, sediment, soil and air.

What are the results of the assessment?

  • The Government of Canada conducted a science-based evaluation of cobalt and cobalt-containing substances, called a screening assessment.
  • Screening assessments address the potential for harm to the general population of Canada and to the environment.
  • Cobalt is present in the environment in different forms. The quantities that are released to the environment from human sources may be above levels expected to cause harm to organisms. However, the results of the final screening assessment indicate that cobalt is not expected to accumulate in organisms. In addition, cobalt and soluble cobalt compounds are not considered to cause harm to the broader integrity of the environment.
  • The Government of Canada concluded that cobalt and soluble cobalt compounds are entering the environment at levels that constitute a danger to the environment.
  • However, the Government of Canada also concluded that cobalt and cobalt from cobalt-containing substances are not harmful to human health at current levels of exposure.

What is the Government of Canada doing?

  • The Government of Canada published the Final Screening Assessment for Cobalt and Cobalt-containing Substances and the Risk Management Approach for Cobalt and Soluble Cobalt-compounds  on May 27, 2017. The risk management approach document is subject to a 60-day public comment period, ending July 26, 2017.
  • The risk management approach document outlines the risk management actions to manage the release of cobalt and soluble cobalt compounds into the environment.
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada is proposing measures to manage releases of cobalt to water from the following industrial sectors or activities: metal mining, mineral exploration, closed and abandoned mines, base metals smelting and refining, pulp and paper and landfills.
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada revised the existing Federal Environmental Quality Guidelines for cobalt. This was done so the guideline is consistent with the predicted no-effect concentration (PNEC) in freshwater, derived in the Final Screening Assessment for Cobalt and Cobalt-containing Substances (the concentration below which exposure to a substance is not expected to cause adverse effects in the environment).

What can Canadians do?

  • The health risks associated with a substance depend on the hazard (its potential to cause health effects) and the amount of substance to which a person is exposed. Cobalt and cobalt from cobalt-containing substances are not a concern for human health at current levels of exposure.
  • As a general precaution, Canadians are reminded when using any product to carefully follow any safety warnings and directions and to dispose of the products appropriately.
  • Canadians who may be exposed to cobalt-containing substances in the workplace should consult with their employer and occupational health and safety (OHS) representatives about safe handling practices, applicable laws, and requirements under OHS legislation and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS).
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