Excessive exposure to heavy metals is a serious concern in our society.
Heavy metal poisoning can be caused by several factors, including the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Exposure to heavy metals can cause health problems such as cancer, kidney disease, reproductive harm, and more in the human body and to other organisms.
Lead and mercury poisoning have adverse effects on children and adults.
By understanding the effects of heavy metals on our bodies and environment, we can take steps to reduce or eliminate their presence in our lives.
Table of Contents
- What are Heavy Metals and Their Types?
- How Heavy Metals Get into the Body
- Are Heavy Metals Safe?
- What is Heavy Metal Poisoning?
- How to Limit Exposure to Heavy Metals
What are Heavy Metals and Their Types?
A “heavy metal” is any element in the periodic table that has high density, atomic weight, or atomic number.
In small amounts, these metals can be helpful, but in large amounts, they become toxic and could make you sick.
This also means that they may build up in your body over time and eventually become a big problem for your health if the metal is not removed.
What are the Common Heavy Metals?
It is the most common metallic element in the Earth’s crust.
Among the nonferrous metals, it is the most used in manufacturing.
It is present in compound forms in nearly every plant, animal, and rock in the ground.
Arsenic is a metalloid, and you can find pure elemental crystal arsenic as well as various mineral compounds in the Earth.
It is known as a primary ingredient in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.
Unfortunately, its metal toxicity and threat to people safety make it a less desirable ingredient for these products today.
High levels of arsenic can lead to poisoning and endanger human life.
Cadmium is soft and silvery-white metal that can be found in zinc ores as well as a waste of zinc production.
Inorganic compounds that contain cadmium are toxic to the environment and humans.
The dangerous effects and threat to safety led to a decrease in the application of cadmium in steel manufacturing and glass coloring.
Cadmium can cause issues with the stomach, kidneys, and reproductive system.
Chromium is considered a transition metal.
It is a major component in stainless steel manufacturing due to its hardness and high resistance to corrosion and discoloration.
As a trivalent chromium, it is an essential nutrient for insulin, sugar, and lipid metabolism in your body.
Unfortunately, hexavalent chromium is toxic to the body and the environment.
Proper cleanup and disposal are required for abandoned production areas that used this element.
Iron is considered a transition metal.
It is the most common chemical element on Earth’s outer and inner core.
It is the most common industrial metal due to its low cost and other properties.
Lead is denser than other common substances. Among the stable elements, lead has the highest atomic number.
The common properties of lead are low melting point, soft, and malleable.
Lead is widely used in various industries including plumbing, paint, gasoline, solder, radiation shielding, weights, and bullets.
Lead exposure can cause cancer so you must prevent over-exposure to including from dust in the air. Lead poisoning is a major health concern and requires an immediate trip to the doctor.
Mercury is the only metal in a liquid state at room temperature.
Its common applications are thermometers, barometers, float valves, mercury switches and relays, as well as fluorescent lamps.
It is used in the mining industry for refining gold gathered from soils and rocks.
It is being replaced by other alternatives due to its high toxic level and the effects to your central nervous system and the brain.
It is banned by various laws after tests and analysis found that it is a poison that can harm different organs like the liver and kidneys in the body as well as muscles and joints.
Studies by experts show that fish can contain mercury that is passed on when eaten.
Selenium is considered a metalloid. Its source is sulfide ore where it is a by-product.
It is used for glassmaking, pigments, and electronics.
Trace amounts are essential in many plants and animals.
However, selenium salts are toxic.
There are many multivitamins and food supplements that contain selenium.
How Heavy Metals Get into the Body
There are several ways in which heavy metals can get in your body and damage your health.
While small amounts of some trace elements are good for us, too much is a bad thing.
Sources of heavy metal poisoning or exposure according to research by experts from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include:
- working in heavy metal factories, sites that use these heavy metals, or emissions
- lead exposure due to lead paint dust in the air
- eating fish with high amounts of heavy metals like mercury
- ingestion or usage of herbal drugs that contain heavy metals
- using cookware made with heavy metals
- drinking water contaminated with heavy metals
- Waste products and emissions
For a list of sources for heavy metals in your environment, check out this list from saferchemicals.org.
Heavy Metals in Food
Heavy metals aren’t naturally occurring in the plants and animals we use for food, but usually get there through contamination of the products we eat.
If the soil and environment where food is produced has high levels, then it will be passed into those organisms as they eat and drink.
Mercury is a common pollutant in rivers, seas, and oceans so it is not uncommon for fish to be contaminated with mercury. As larger fish consume smaller fish down the food chain, the mercury accumulates and becomes more toxic.
Fertilizers can contain mercury that are taken up through the soil and then are transmitted to any animal that eats the plant.
Lead can be present in a lot of foods including vegetables, meat, fruits, seafood and even wine. Exposure to lead is a real issue in some places.
Common food ingredients that can be contaminated with cadmium are mushrooms, shellfish, and freshwater fish.
Copper pipes and copper cookware can contaminate water and food.
Plant-based foods contain chromium.
Nickel in the soil can be absorbed by any plant in the environment.
Meat and cereals have high concentration of selenium.
Heavy metals in baby food are a particularly dangerous problem since babies are still developing and are very sensitive to over exposure.
Heavy Metals in Water
People are not just exposed to elemental and chemical pollution through the environment and food… water is another way that you can be exposed to any dangerous substance and can lead to heavy metal poisoning.
Copper and lead are two of the most common substances that can be found in drinking water sources. Lead poisoning is serious and requires a trip to the hospital or your doctor.
How to Test for Heavy Metals in Water
If you want to know all the information about chemicals in your drinking water, it is best to bring samples to a licensed testing laboratory for different tests.
They can provide accurate results and analysis including the different contaminants in the groundwater and the amount that could be considered at poison concentrations.
Are Heavy Metals Safe?
Although small amounts of some heavy metals are essential for life in both humans and animals, many heavy metals are toxic to public health.
Even the essential heavy metals can cause serious health effects if you are exposed in high levels.
Heavy metal toxicity just through skin contact when used as additives in construction or other materials is possible.
It is necessary to take proper precautions when handling various heavy metals to prevent ingestion, inhalation, or contact with these toxic metals. Products that are known to test high in any dangerous substance should come with information about safe handling and precautions.
What is Heavy Metal Poisoning?
Heavy metal poisoning is a harmful health problem where there is exposure in the human body to high concentrations of various heavy metals.
Once the levels of exposure to different heavy metals in your body surpass the tolerable level, heavy metal poisoning will occur.
Since the amount in your body can build over time (they have high lipid solubility and are stored in fat), the risk increases over time as concentrations increase.
What are the Symptoms of Heavy Metal Poisoning?
The symptoms of heavy metal poisoning vary depending on the heavy metal and the type of poisoning.
Here are the health effects and symptoms of heavy metal poisoning – both acute and chronic – to adults and children.
- abdominal pain
- brain diseases like memory loss
- behavioral changes and irritation
- fluid in the lungs
- growth problems
- hair loss or hair damage
- kidney function disorder and kidney damage
- liver damage
- lung disease like lung cancer
- horizontal lines in the nails
- weak or malformed bones due to calcium deficiency
- nervous system problems
- damage to reproductive systems in both men and women
What Detox Treatment is Needed for Exposure to Heavy Metals?
Depending on whether the symptoms are chronic or acute, information about the type of poisoning and levels in the body is necessary to find the proper treatment.
Your doctor can run tests to make a heavy metal poisoning diagnosis.
The result of a test can lead to different detox treatments a doctor can use to lower toxic elements to safe levels.
The risks are high for children and infants and diagnosis and treatment for these types of cases are especially important.
How to Limit Exposure to Heavy Metals
The symptoms associated with heavy metal poisoning can be difficult to study since they are common in many other diseases.
The best solution is preventing exposure. Avoid drinking water, eating food, or contacting products that are known sources of heavy metals like lead and mercury.
If water tests show high levels of heavy metal pollution, a water filters and treatments can protect your family from exposure.
A whole house water filtration system will keep your drinking water supply free from heavy metal contaminants and prevent health problems everywhere in your home.
A point-of-use reverse osmosis water filter will ensure that the water you use to drink and cook with is clean and safe.
The effects of heavy metals in the body can cause both serious and long-term effects.
If you suspect that you have been exposed to a dangerous level of toxic heavy metals or are having symptoms that suggest over-exposure, speak to your doctor, and get tested.
There are solutions to lower the levels in the human body and prevent the effects they cause.