Cobalt is a hard, silver-gray metal that occurs naturally in rocks, soil, water, plants, and animals. It is a trace mineral, meaning that we require tiny amounts to maintain good health.
There is just 1–2mg of cobalt in the body, but it plays an essential role. It is a crucial component of vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin. Therefore, it is involved in red blood cell production, nervous system function, and DNA synthesis.
The mineral also has many everyday uses and can be found throughout our homes. However, overexposure could cause severe side effects.
Here’s our complete guide.
Facts About Cobalt
The Swedish chemist Georg Brandt discovered cobalt in 1735. It was the first new metal to be identified since prehistoric times. Its name derives from kobold, a goblin or evil spirit in European mythology.
Interestingly, cobalt is one of just three magnetic metals, alongside iron and nickel. It also forms many different radioactive isotopes. Cobalt-60 (sometimes written as CO-60 or ⁶⁰CO) is the best-known. It has numerous uses, which we will discuss below.
Another interesting fact about cobalt is that it is present in meteorites. These extra-terrestrial objects also contain iron and nickel, making them magnetic. Therefore, using a magnet is one way to potentially differentiate between ordinary rocks and those from outer space!
Finally, the mineral is a vital component of vitamin B12, giving the nutrient its alternate name, cobalamin. Vitamin B12 has many critical functions in the body, including:
- Red blood cell production
- Maintaining nerve cell and neurotransmitter function
- DNA synthesis
Therefore, as part of vitamin B12, cobalt plays a role in preventing anemia and keeping our cells and nervous systems healthy.
Uses and Benefits
There are many different cobalt uses, both in healthcare and everyday life. For example, it can be made into various alloys for industrial or military use.
Cobalt is very hard and resistant to high temperatures, making it ideal for manufacturing “diamond” cutting and grinding tools. It is also a common metal in hip and knee replacements due to its durability.
Other common uses of cobalt include coloring glass, ceramics, and paint. The pigment produces a vivid blue color and is what gives vintage medicine bottles their distinctive appearance.
However, its leading use is in rechargeable battery electrodes. This has led to massive price rises in the past few years as demand has increased rapidly. For instance, in 2017, cobalt prices more than doubled.
Cobalt is a highly versatile substance with many different applications.
As we mentioned earlier, radioactive CO-60 also has many uses. The isotope gives off gamma rays as it breaks down, which can sterilize medical equipment and food. It can also be used in plastic manufacturing and to delay vegetable sprouting.
However, one of the best-known CO-60 uses is radiation therapy. When doctors administer it in carefully controlled conditions, it targets cancerous cells while causing minimal damage to surrounding tissues.
As such, cobalt is a highly versatile substance with many different applications. However, overexposure can cause some dangerous side effects.
Side Effects of Cobalt
Cobalt is a common allergen and can trigger contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals.
Moreover, people who come into contact with large amounts of cobalt may experience severe side effects. The most significant risks are associated with inhalation. Therefore, individuals who work in industrial settings are most likely to be affected.
The adverse effects of inhaling cobalt dust include:
It can also affect the heart, causing a condition called cardiomyopathy. It impairs the heart muscle’s ability to pump blood around the body, causing shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue.
People with cobalt joint replacements may also experience side effects. They are most common with metal-on-metal implants, which can increase cobalt levels in the blood. Examples include:
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Hearing or vision loss
- Cognitive decline
- Reduced thyroid function
There are also several issues associated with CO-60 and radiation therapy. These cobalt treatment side effects include:
- Burnt or blistered skin
- Hair loss
- Reduced white blood cell count
- Damage to the reproductive organs
Accidental exposure to radioactive cobalt can cause similar reactions. Coming into contact with very high levels can lead to more severe problems, including bleeding, coma, and death.
It is best to consume cobalt as part of vitamin B12. Therefore, the recommended daily doses for cobalt correlate directly with the recommended daily doses for vitamin B12.
For example, the government recommends that most adults consume 2.4mcg of vitamin B12 daily. This figure equates to 0.1mcg of cobalt.
Doctors may prescribe higher doses to stimulate red blood cell production in anemia patients. However, the FDA has not established an optimal amount or upper limit.
Supplements can vary in potency between 0.2mg (200mcg) and 1mg (1000mcg) per serving.
The European Food Safety Authority suggests that taking up to 600mcg daily should not have cancer-causing effects. Meanwhile, according to the United Kingdom Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals, up to 1400mcg may be safe for most healthy adults.
Supplements can vary in potency between 0.2mg (200mcg) and 1mg (1000mcg) per serving. Therefore, some products contain doses toward the upper end of what is considered safe.
Sources of Cobalt
There are traces of cobalt in most foods. However, the best cobalt sources are foods that are rich in vitamin B12. These foods generally originate from animals and include:
- Meat, especially organ meat
- Milk and other dairy products
- Fortified nutritional yeast
Therefore, people who follow a vegan diet may find it more challenging to consume adequate vitamin B12 and cobalt.
Cobalt Supplement Options and Safety
Cobalt supplements are available, although they are not especially common. They tend to come in liquid or capsule form, either alone or with other minerals.
Vitamin B12 and B complex supplements will also contain some cobalt in the form of methylcobalamin, hydroxocobalamin, or cyanocobalamin.
However, most people do not need to take supplements and should seek professional guidance before doing so. This precaution is especially important during pregnancy and breastfeeding since cobalt’s safety has not been established.
Furthermore, while cobalt does not have any known drug interactions, vitamin B12 does. Therefore, individuals taking other medicines should consult a physician before taking B12 supplements.
Finally, people with a rare eye condition called Leber syndrome should not take B12 due to the risk of vision loss.
Bottom Line on Cobalt
Cobalt is a versatile metal with a wide range of applications. The most common uses of cobalt include manufacturing tools and batteries. It is also used in healthcare to make joint replacements and in radiation therapy.
Cobalt also has an essential role in the body as part of vitamin B12. Therefore, it is vital to consume enough each day.
Fortunately, there are traces of cobalt in many foods, and most people do not require supplements. Anyone considering adding the mineral to their wellness regimen should consult a physician to ensure it is safe for them.