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Nickel allergies are on the rise as devices meet skin

As wearable devices become more popular, some doctors and consumers have expressed concerns about a lack of regulatory oversight to monitor the frequency of skin allergies and other reactions to certain metals or plastics used in the products.

Nickel, one of the most common allergens in the United States, can be found in things like hand-held devices and jewelry. But unlike Europe, the U.S. has no restrictions on its widespread use in consumer products. That worries some doctors who say that the growing use of mobile and hand-held devices combined with a lack of regulatory oversight could lead to a spike in allergic reactions.

“I am absolutely concerned about it,” said Stephen P. Stone, the director of clinical research in dermatology at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and the former president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 10-20 percent of the population is allergic to nickel. The reactions can be unpleasant, but not fatal. Typically they include blistering, redness and dry skin.

In February, Fitbit, the maker of a popular brand of devices that measure physical activity, had to recall more than 1 million of its wristbands after receiving complaints about adverse skin reactions.

In a statement on its website, the company said that users were most likely suffering from allergic contact dermatitis, a red and itchy rash, caused by either the adhesive or the nickel content.

Several years ago, dermatologists began seeing allergic reactions to cellphones, but some say the scope of the problem has since expanded.

In 2011, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts recalled about 1,200 children’s watches because of nickel in the watch’s back, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the independent government agency in charge of recalls. A recent article in the Journal of Pediatrics pointed to a rise in nickel allergies among children and cited an 11-year-old boy who most likely had an allergic reaction to his iPad.

“With the increasing prevalence of nickel allergy in the pediatric population, it is important for clinicians to continue to consider metallic-appearing electronics and personal effects as potential sources of nickel exposure,” the article stated.

“I think nickel is still a really big issue in the United States,” said Bruce A. Brod, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. “Now we’re seeing some cases from iPads and laptop computers and some of the video games where there are metal pods.”

In an email, Chris Gaither, a spokesman for Apple, said that reactions described in the Pediatrics article were “extremely rare,” and that the company voluntarily adhered to international nickel guidelines.

“Apple products are made from the highest-quality materials and meet the same strict standards set for jewelry by both the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission and their counterparts in Europe. We rigorously test our products to make sure they are safe for all our customers,” he said.

Not all products that contain nickel pose a threat. How much nickel is in a product affects how much nickel seeps out of it, and Europe sets limits that companies must follow.

“The European directive has limited the use of nickel, but in the United States we haven’t, and it results in suffering and health care expenditure,” Brod said.