~Heavy Metal Toxicity

~Heavy Metal Toxicity
Reprinted with permission of Life Extension®.


  • Definition
  • Beneficial Heavy Metals
  • Toxic Heavy Metals

There are 35 metals that concern us because of occupational or residential exposure; 23 of these are the heavy elements or "heavy metals": antimony, arsenic, bismuth, cadmium, cerium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, platinum, silver, tellurium, thallium, tin, uranium, vanadium, and zinc (Glanze 1996). Interestingly, small amounts of these elements are common in our environment and diet and are actually necessary for good health, but large amounts of any of them may cause acute or chronic toxicity (poisoning). Heavy metal toxicity can result in damaged or reduced mental and central nervous function, lower energy levels, and damage to blood composition, lungs, kidneys, liver, and other vital organs. Long-term exposure may result in slowly progressing physical, muscular, and neurological degenerative processes that mimic Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis. Allergies are not uncommon and repeated long-term contact with some metals or their compounds may even cause cancer (International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre 1999).

For some heavy metals, toxic levels can be just above the background concentrations naturally found in nature. Therefore, it is important for us to inform ourselves about the heavy metals and to take protective measures against excessive exposure. In most parts of the United States, heavy metal toxicity is an uncommon medical condition; however, it is a clinically significant condition when it does occur. If unrecognized or inappropriately treated, toxicity can result in significant illness and reduced quality of life (Ferner 2001). For persons who suspect that they or someone in their household might have heavy metal toxicity, testing is essential. Appropriate conventional and natural medical procedures may need to be pursued (Dupler 2001).

The association of symptoms indicative of acute toxicity is not difficult to recognize because the symptoms are usually severe, rapid in onset, and associated with a known exposure or ingestion (Ferner 2001): cramping, nausea, and vomiting; pain; sweating; headaches; difficulty breathing; impaired cognitive, motor, and language skills; mania; and convulsions. The symptoms of toxicity resulting from chronic exposure (impaired cognitive, motor, and language skills; learning difficulties; nervousness and emotional instability; and insomnia, nausea, lethargy, and feeling ill) are also easily recognized; however, they are much more difficult to associate with their cause. Symptoms of chronic exposure are very similar to symptoms of other health conditions and often develop slowly over months or even years. Sometimes the symptoms of chronic exposure actually abate from time to time, leading the person to postpone seeking treatment, thinking the symptoms are related to something else.

Definition of a Heavy Metal

"Heavy metals" are chemical elements with a specific gravity that is at least 5 times the specific gravity of water. The specific gravity of water is 1 at 4C (39F). Simply stated, specific gravity is a measure of density of a given amount of a solid substance when it is compared to an equal amount of water. Some well-known toxic metallic elements with a specific gravity that is 5 or more times that of water are arsenic, 5.7; cadmium, 8.65; iron, 7.9; lead, 11.34; and mercury, 13.546 (Lide 1992).

Beneficial Heavy Metals

In small quantities, certain heavy metals are nutritionally essential for a healthy life. Some of these are referred to as the trace elements (e.g., iron, copper, manganese, and zinc). These elements, or some form of them, are commonly found naturally in foodstuffs, in fruits and vegetables, and in commercially available multivitamin products (International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre 1999). Diagnostic medical applications include direct injection of gallium during radiological procedures, dosing with chromium in parenteral nutrition mixtures, and the use of lead as a radiation shield around x-ray equipment (Roberts 1999). Heavy metals are also common in industrial applications such as in the manufacture of pesticides, batteries, alloys, electroplated metal parts, textile dyes, steel, and so forth. (International Occupational Safety and Heath Information Centre 1999). Many of these products are in our homes and actually add to our quality of life when properly used.

Toxic Heavy Metals

Heavy metals become toxic when they are not metabolized by the body and accumulate in the soft tissues. Heavy metals may enter the human body through food, water, air, or absorption through the skin when they come in contact with humans in agriculture and in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, industrial, or residential settings. Industrial exposure accounts for a common route of exposure for adults. Ingestion is the most common route of exposure in children (Roberts 1999). Children may develop toxic levels from the normal hand-to-mouth activity of small children who come in contact with contaminated soil or by actually eating objects that are not food (dirt or paint chips) (Dupler 2001). Less common routes of exposure are during a radiological procedure, from inappropriate dosing or monitoring during intravenous (parenteral) nutrition, from a broken thermometer (Smith et al. 1997), or from a suicide or homicide attempt (Lupton et al. 1985).

As a rule, acute poisoning is more likely to result from inhalation or skin contact of dust, fumes or vapors, or materials in the workplace. However, lesser levels of contamination may occur in residential settings, particularly in older homes with lead paint or old plumbing (International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre 1999). The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR) in Atlanta, Georgia, (a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) was established by congressional mandate to perform specific functions concerning adverse human health effects and diminished quality of life associated with exposure to hazardous substances. The ASTDR is responsible for assessment of waste sites and providing health information concerning hazardous substances, response to emergency release situations, and education and training concerning hazardous substances (ASTDR Mission Statement, November 7, 2001). In cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the ASTDR has compiled a Priority List for 2001 called the "Top 20 Hazardous Substances." The heavy metals arsenic (1), lead (2), mercury (3), and cadmium (7) appear on this list.

Note: The ASTDR provides comprehensive protocols called Medical Management Guidelines for Acute Chemical Exposures in Volume III of the Managing Hazardous Material Incidents Series. These protocols have a Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number and give a description of toxic substances; routes of exposure; health effects; prehospital, triage, and emergency medical department care; antidotes and treatment; disposition and follow-up; and reporting instructions. The series may be viewed or downloaded from the ASTDR Web site at no cost.

Commonly Encountered Toxic Heavy Metals

  • Arsenic
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Iron
  • Aluminum

As noted earlier, there are 35 metals of concern, with 23 of them called the heavy metals. Toxicity can result from any of these metals. This protocol will address the metals that are most likely encountered in our daily environment. Briefly covered will be four metals that are included in the ASTDR's "Top 20 Hazardous Substances" list. Iron and aluminum will also be discussed even though they do not appear on the ASTDR's list.

Arsenic. Arsenic is the most common cause of acute heavy metal poisoning in adults and is number 1 on the ASTDR's "Top 20 List." Arsenic is released into the environment by the smelting process of copper, zinc, and lead, as well as by the manufacturing of chemicals and glasses. Arsine gas is a common byproduct produced by the manufacturing of pesticides that contain arsenic. Arsenic may be also be found in water supplies worldwide, leading to exposure of shellfish, cod, and haddock. Other sources are paints, rat poisoning, fungicides, and wood preservatives. Target organs are the blood, kidneys, and central nervous, digestive, and skin systems (Roberts 1999; ASTDR ToxFAQs for Arsenic).

Lead. Lead is number 2 on the ASTDR's "Top 20 List." Lead accounts for most of the cases of pediatric heavy metal poisoning (Roberts 1999). It is a very soft metal and was used in pipes, drains, and soldering materials for many years. Millions of homes built before 1940 still contain lead (e.g., in painted surfaces), leading to chronic exposure from weathering, flaking, chalking, and dust. Every year, industry produces about 2.5 million tons of lead throughout the world. Most of this lead is used for batteries. The remainder is used for cable coverings, plumbing, ammunition, and fuel additives. Other uses are as paint pigments and in PVC plastics, x-ray shielding, crystal glass production, pencils, and pesticides. Target organs are the bones, brain, blood, kidneys, and thyroid gland (International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre 1999; ASTDR ToxFAQs for Lead).

Mercury. Number 3 on ASTDR's "Top 20 List" is mercury. Mercury is generated naturally in the environment from the degassing of the earth's crust, from volcanic emissions. It exists in three forms: elemental mercury and organic and inorganic mercury. Mining operations, chloralkali plants, and paper industries are significant producers of mercury (Goyer 1996). Atmospheric mercury is dispersed across the globe by winds and returns to the earth in rainfall, accumulating in aquatic food chains and fish in lakes (Clarkson 1990). Mercury compounds were added to paint as a fungicide until 1990. These compounds are now banned; however, old paint supplies and surfaces painted with these old supplies still exist. Mercury continues to be used in thermometers, thermostats, and dental amalgam. (Many researchers suspect dental amalgam as being a possible source of mercury toxicity [Omura et al. 1996; O'Brien 2001].) Medicines, such as mercurochrome and merthiolate, are still available. Algaecides and childhood vaccines are also potential sources. Inhalation is the most frequent cause of exposure to mercury. The organic form is readily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract (90-100%); lesser but still significant amounts of inorganic mercury are absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract (7-15%). Target organs are the brain and kidneys (Roberts 1999; ASTDR ToxFAQs for Mercury).

Cadmium. Cadmium is a byproduct of the mining and smelting of lead and zinc and is number 7 on ASTDR's "Top 20 list." It is used in nickel-cadmium batteries, PVC plastics, and paint pigments. It can be found in soils because insecticides, fungicides, sludge, and commercial fertilizers that use cadmium are used in agriculture. Cadmium may be found in reservoirs containing shellfish. Cigarettes also contain cadmium. Lesser-known sources of exposure are dental alloys, electroplating, motor oil, and exhaust. Inhalation accounts for 15-50% of absorption through the respiratory system; 2-7% of ingested cadmium is absorbed in the gastrointestinal system. Target organs are the liver, placenta, kidneys, lungs, brain, and bones (Roberts 1999; ASTDR ToxFAQs for Cadmium).

Iron. Discussion of iron toxicity in this protocol is limited to ingested or environmental exposure. Iron overload disease (hemochromatosis), an inherited disorder, is discussed in a separate protocol. Iron does not appear on the ASTDR's "Top 20 List," but it is a heavy metal of concern, particularly because ingesting dietary iron supplements may acutely poison young children (e.g., as few as five to nine 30-mg iron tablets for a 30-lb child).

Ingestion accounts for most of the toxic effects of iron because iron is absorbed rapidly in the gastrointestinal tract. The corrosive nature of iron seems to further increase the absorption. Most overdoses appear to be the result of children mistaking red-coated ferrous sulfate tablets or adult multivitamin preparations for candy. (Fatalities from overdoses have decreased significantly with the introduction of child-proof packaging. In recent years, blister packaging and the requirement that containers with 250 mg or more of iron have child-proof bottle caps have helped reduce accidental ingestion and overdose of iron tablets by children.) Other sources of iron are drinking water, iron pipes, and cookware. Target organs are the liver, cardiovascular system, and kidneys (Roberts 1999).

Aluminum. Although aluminum is not a heavy metal (specific gravity of 2.55-2.80), it makes up about 8% of the surface of the earth and is the third most abundant element (ASTDR ToxFAQs for Aluminum). It is readily available for human ingestion through the use of food additives, antacids, buffered aspirin, astringents, nasal sprays, and antiperspirants; from drinking water; from automobile exhaust and tobacco smoke; and from using aluminum foil, aluminum cookware, cans, ceramics, and fireworks (ASTDR ToxFAQs for Aluminum).

Studies began to emerge about 20 years ago suggesting that aluminum might have a possible connection with developing Alzheimer's disease when researchers found what they considered to be significant amounts of aluminum in the brain tissue of Alzheimer's patients. Although aluminum was also found in the brain tissue of people who did not have Alzheimer's disease, recommendations to avoid sources of aluminum received widespread public attention. As a result, many organizations and individuals reached a level of concern that prompted them to dispose of all their aluminum cookware and storage containers and to become wary of other possible sources of aluminum, such as soda cans, personal care products, and even their drinking water (Anon. 1993).

However, the World Health Organization (WHO 1998) concluded that, although there were studies that demonstrate a positive relationship between aluminum in drinking water and Alzheimer's disease, the WHO had reservations about a causal relationship because the studies did not account for total aluminum intake from all possible sources. Although there is no conclusive evidence for or against aluminum as a primary cause for Alzheimer's disease, most researchers agree that it is an important factor in the dementia component and most certainly deserves continuing research efforts. Therefore, at this time, reducing exposure to aluminum is a personal decision. Workers in the automobile manufacturing industry also have concerns about long-term exposure to aluminum (contained in metal working fluids) in the workplace and the development of degenerative muscular conditions and cancer (Brown 1998; Bardin et al. 2000). The ASTDR has compiled a ToxFAQs for Aluminum to answer the most frequently asked health questions about aluminum. Target organs for aluminum are the central nervous system, kidney, and digestive system.

Symptoms of Exposure and Toxicity

  • Arsenic
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Aluminum

Exposure to toxic heavy metals is generally classified as acute, 14 days or less; intermediate, 15-354 days; and chronic, more than 365 days (ASTDR). Additionally, acute toxicity is usually from a sudden or unexpected exposure to a high level of the heavy metal (e.g., from careless handling, inadequate safety precautions, or an accidental spill or release of toxic material often in a laboratory, industrial, or transportation setting). Chronic toxicity results from repeated or continuous exposure, leading to an accumulation of the toxic substance in the body. Chronic exposure may result from contaminated food, air, water, or dust; living near a hazardous waste site; spending time in areas with deteriorating lead paint; maternal transfer in the womb; or from participating in hobbies that use lead paint or solder. Chronic exposure may occur in either the home or workplace. Symptoms of chronic toxicity are often similar to many common conditions and may not be readily recognized. Routes of exposure include inhalation, skin or eye contact, and ingestion (ASTDR MMGs and ToxFAQs; Anon. 1993; WHO 1998; International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre 1999; Roberts 1999; Dupler 2001; Ferner 2001).

Arsenic. Exposure to arsenic occurs mostly in the workplace, near hazardous waste sites, or in areas with high natural levels. Symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning are sore throat from breathing, red skin at contact point, or severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, often within 1 hour after ingestion. Other symptoms are anorexia, fever, mucosal irritation, and arrhythmia. Cardiovascular changes are often subtle in the early stages but can progress to cardiovascular collapse.

Chronic or lower levels of exposure can lead to progressive peripheral and central nervous changes, such as sensory changes, numbness and tingling, and muscle tenderness. A symptom typically described is a burning sensation ("needles and pins") in hands and feet. Neuropathy (inflammation and wasting of the nerves) is usually gradual and occurs over several years. There may also be excessive darkening of the skin (hyperpigmentation) in areas that are not exposed to sunlight, excessive formation of skin on the palms and soles (hyperkeratosis), or white bands of arsenic deposits across the bed of the fingernails (usually 4-6 weeks after exposure). Birth defects, liver injury, and malignancy are possible. (Arsenic has also been used in homicides and suicides.)

Lead. Acute exposure to lead is also more likely to occur in the workplace, particularly in manufacturing processes that include the use of lead (e.g., where batteries are manufactured or lead is recycled). Even printing ink, gasoline, and fertilizer contain lead. Symptoms include abdominal pain, convulsions, hypertension, renal dysfunction, loss of appetite, fatigue, and sleeplessness. Other symptoms are hallucinations, headache, numbness, arthritis, and vertigo.

Chronic exposure to lead may result in birth defects, mental retardation, autism, psychosis, allergies, dyslexia, hyperactivity, weight loss, shaky hands, muscular weakness, and paralysis (beginning in the forearms). Children are particularly sensitive to lead (absorbing as much as 50% of the ingested dose) and are prone to ingesting lead because they chew on painted surfaces and eat products not intended for human consumption (e.g., hobby paints, cosmetics, hair colorings with lead-based pigments, and even playground dirt). In addition to the symptoms found in acute lead exposure, symptoms of chronic lead exposure could be allergies, arthritis, autism, colic, hyperactivity, mood swings, nausea, numbness, lack of concentration, seizures, and weight loss.

Mercury. Acute mercury exposure may occur in the mining industry and in the manufacturing of fungicides, thermometers, and thermostats. Liquid mercury is particularly attractive to children because of its beautiful silver color and unique behavior when spilled. Children are more likely to incur acute exposure in the home from ingesting mercury from a broken thermometer or drinking medicine that contains mercury. Because mercury vapors concentrate at floor level, crawling children are subject to a significant hazard when the mercury is sprinkled throughout the house during religious ceremonies or when there is an accidental spill (Zayas et al. 1996). Mercury spills are difficult to clean up, and mercury may remain undetected in carpeting for some time. Symptoms of acute exposure are cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath; metallic taste in the mouth, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; headaches, weakness, visual disturbances, tachycardia, and hypertension.

Chronic exposure to mercury may result in permanent damage to the central nervous system (Ewan et al. 1996) and kidneys. Mercury can also cross the placenta from the mother's body to the fetus (levels in the fetus are often double those in the mother) and accumulate, resulting in mental retardation, brain damage, cerebral palsy, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak.

Dental amalgam is also suspected as being a possible source of mercury toxicity from chronic exposure. Some physicians suggest that amalgam fillings could be part of the explanation for the explosion of learning problems and autism in children since World War II, a time period corresponding with the introduction and widespread use of mercury amalgam (O'Brien 2001). Studies in both animals and humans have confirmed the presence of mercury from amalgam fillings in tissue specimens, blood, amniotic fluid, or urine (Vimy et al. 1990; Willershausen-Zonnchen et al. 1992; Gebel et al. 1996; Omura et al. 1996; Sallsten et al. 1996; Isacsson et al. 1997). However, according to Dr. Robert M. Anderton of the American Dental Association, "There is no sound scientific evidence supporting a link between amalgam fillings and systemic diseases or chronic illness" (Anderton 2001).

The ADA does acknowledge that amalgam contains mercury and reacts with others substances. However, to date the ADA concludes that amalgam continues to be a safe material. Researchers reported finding "no significant association of Alzheimer's disease with the number, surface area, or history of having dental amalgam restoration" and "no statistical significant differences in brain mercury levels between subjects with Alzheimer's disease and control subjects" (Saxe et al. 1999).

Interestingly, the metallic mercury used by dentists to manufacture dental amalgam is shipped as a hazardous material to dental offices. Although the ADA does not advise removing existing amalgam fillings from teeth, it does support ongoing research to develop new materials that will prove to be as safe as dental amalgam (Anderton 2001). Symptoms in adults and children could include tremors, anxiety, forgetfulness, emotional instability, insomnia, fatigue, weakness, anorexia, cognitive and motor dysfunction, and kidney damage. People who consume more than two fish meals a week are showing very high serum levels of mercury.

Cadmium. Acute exposure to cadmium generally occurs in the workplace, particularly in the manufacturing processes of batteries and color pigments used in paint and plastics, as well as in electroplating and galvanizing processes. Symptoms of acute cadmium exposure are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and breathing difficulty.

Chronic exposure to cadmium can result in chronic obstructive lung disease, renal disease, and fragile bones. Protect children by carefully storing products containing cadmium, especially nickel-cadmium batteries. Symptoms of chronic exposure could include alopecia, anemia, arthritis, learning disorders, migraines, growth impairment, emphysema, osteoporosis, loss of taste and smell, poor appetite, and cardiovascular disease.

Aluminum. Although aluminum is not a heavy metal, environmental exposure is frequent, leading to concerns about accumulative effects and a possible connection with Alzheimer's disease (Anon. 1993). Acute exposure is more likely in the workplace (e.g., unintentional breathing of aluminum-laden dust from manufacturing or metal finishing processes).

Chronic exposure may occur in the workplace from accumulated exposures to low levels of airborne aluminum dust and handling aluminum parts during assembly processes over many years. In the home, we are in constant contact with aluminum in foods and in water; from cookware and soft drink cans; from consuming items with high levels of aluminum (e.g., antacids, buffered aspirin, or treated drinking water; or even by using nasal sprays, toothpaste, and antiperspirants) (Anon. 1993; ASTDR ToxFAQs for Aluminum). Citric acid (e.g., in orange juice) may increase aluminum levels by its leaching activity.

Interestingly, aluminum-based coagulants are used in the purification of water. However, the beneficial effects of using aluminum in water treatment have been balanced against the potential health concerns. Water purification facilities follow a number of approaches to minimize the level in "finished" water (WHO 1998). Symptoms of aluminum toxicity include memory loss, learning difficulty, loss of coordination, disorientation, mental confusion, colic, heartburn, flatulence, and headaches.

Continued . . .

Free Shipping in the Continental U.S. on Orders over $50
The statements made here have not been evaluated by the FDA. The foregoing statements are based upon sound and reliable studies, and are meant for informational purposes. Consult with your medical practitioner to determine the underlying cause of your symptoms. Please always check your purchase for possible allergins and correct dosage on the bottle before use.

While we work to ensure that product information is correct, on occasion manufacturers may alter their ingredient lists. Actual product packaging and materials may contain more and/or different information than that shown on our Web site. We recommend that you do not solely rely on the information presented and that you always read labels, warnings, and directions before using or consuming a product. For additional information about a product, please contact the manufacturer. Content on this site is for reference purposes and is not intended to substitute for advice given by a physician, pharmacist, or other licensed health-care professional. You should not use this information as self-diagnosis or for treating a health problem or disease. Contact your health-care provider immediately if you suspect that you have a medical problem. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition. Life Ex Online assumes no liability for inaccuracies or misstatements about products.