“I heard that if I drink milk before welding, I won’t get metal fume fever or cancer. Fact or fiction?”"

Fiction. There is an old myth still circulating among some welders that drinking milk before welding can help protect them from the harmful health effects of breathing in toxic welding fumes, such as lung cancer and metal fume fever. Metal fume fever is a common, short-term illness often brought on by breathing in zinc oxide fumes that are produced during welding, particularly when welding galvanised steel or iron. The milk theory is based on the belief that when welders drink milk, the calcium in the milk will “saturate the body” and prevent the body from absorbing toxic heavy metals that can be found in welding fumes, such as cadmium.   

However, there is no scientific evidence to show that drinking milk will prevent cancer or metal fume fever caused by welding. At the most basic level, milk and welding fumes enter the body via different pathways; milk enters the digestive system, while welding fumes are breathed in through the nose or mouth and enter the respiratory system. The respiratory system is where the most harmful consequences of welding fumes are experienced, like lung cancer. Therefore, drinking milk is not a substitute for taking appropriate safety precautions. 

So how can welders reduce their risk of cancer?

All types of welding fume are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, meaning they can cause cancer in humans. Therefore, it is important that anyone conducting welding, be it recreationally or for work, take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and anyone nearby. Cancer Council recommends selecting welding processes and materials that may produce less fume, using appropriate ventilation systems that are positioned close to the weld, and wearing personal protective equipment including air purifying respiratory protection that filters particulates and ozone. 

For more information visit Cancer Council’s Welding webpage.