• Steel is iron that has been purified to contain very little carbon. 1 Steel is used for construction of buildings and infrastructure, and the manufacturing of vehicles, machines, appliances, and food packaging. 2 It is used for its durability, strength, appearance, and non-corrosive properties. 3 In the arts it may be used in design, jewelry, and for etched printmaking plates.


  • Steel is produced from iron ore and recycled scrap steel. The industrial process uses coal, fluxes (lime and/or the mineral fluorspar) and oxygen to control temperatures and remove impurities. 1 The production of steel is energy intensive, since it utilizes heavy machinery and high temperatures. 4


  • The mining of iron ore through blasting leads to the physical destruction of the landscape, causing erosion and the loss of habitat. 5 The continuous operation of steel producing furnaces contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Steel enabled the creation of infrastructure, cities, factories, cars and other inventions during the industrial revolution, which have since caused climate change. These technological changes have also caused destruction of the environment and pollution of all kinds.

Human Health

  • Blasting and the grinding up of rock produces airborne particles that can cause lung disease in workers. 5 Before 1980, asbestos was used extensively as fire resistant insulation in equipment, factory structures, and protective clothing, so workers were extremely vulnerable to lung cancer. Today the risk of asbestos exposure continues in factories which use  older equipment and insulation. 7
  • Some alloys of steel may leach nickel, which in sensitive individuals can cause allergic reaction on skin contact. 8

Social Equity        

  • For better or worse, the invention of affordable steelmaking has completely altered modes of living in industrialized nations. US steel production peaked around 1975, but continues to employ about 150,000 workers today. 9
  • Historically, US steel mills exploited minorities who often sought the industry’s high paying jobs. In the late 1800s, African Americans were used as strikebreakers, which encouraged racism in white workers, and enabled employers to pay unfairly low wage. Until 1974, African Americans and other minorities in the US steel industry were given extremely dangerous jobs and denied promotion. 10

Safe Use and Exposure

  • When working with steel, wear gloves and breathing protection to avoid cuts and inhalation of small particles.
  • In printmaking, steel plates are etched with nitric acid, which is corrosive, poisonous, and releases explosive gas during etching. When etching, work in a well ventilated area, wear skin and eye protection, and do not smoke. 6

Proper disposal

  • Donate usable material to the givetake, or recycle. Steel can always be melted down and turned into new product. 1

Safe Alternatives

  • Steel is relatively safe to use. If you are etching, consider using zinc plates with ferric chloride as a safe alternative to steel and nitric acid. 6



  1. “Steel Manufacture”,,
  2. “Steel Applications”, World Steel Association,
  3. “What are the Useful Properties of Stainless Steel”, SeattlePI,
  4. “STEEL: From Start to Finish”, YouTube,
  5. “Environmental Risks of Mining”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
  6. Printmaking Safety Manual,
  7. “Steel Mill Workers”,,
  8. “Stainless Steel Leaches Nickel and Chromium into Foods During Cooking”, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry,
  9. “Iron and Steel Industry in the United States”, Wikipedia,
  10. “Struggles in Steel, California Newsreel,