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Heavy Metal Toxicity: A Brief Overview (Part 1)

Woman Watching

“We are watching you.” – Heavy Metals

Past news topics around the world:

  • Manila, Philippines – Candles with Lead-core Wicks
  • Malaysia – Traditional Chinese Medicines with Arsenic and Mercury
  • Indonesia – Miners Use Mercury to Extract Gold
  • Canada – Heavy Metals Found in Makeup
  • New York, USA – Lead in Turmeric Powder
  • Dallas, USA – Lead in Your Old Bathtub
  • New Jersey, USA – Metallosis from Hip Implants
  • Australia – Mercury in Drugs

…and the list of news topics can go on. Do you know what is common to all of them?

They’re all about heavy metals. To be precise, heavy metal poisoning. The ones listed above happened on a small scale basis. Imagine the disasters which happened in the past (on a large scale basis).


There is much confusion (not to mention arguing among experts) as to what makes up a heavy metal (the EXACT definition). Luckily for us, we stick with the simplest and most practical definition. Leave the arguments to the experts.

Periodic Table of ElementsStrictly speaking, heavy metals are those elements of the periodic table (from chemistry, remember?) which show metallic properties. Others have based their definitions on the atomic weight, density, chemical features and toxicity of the element. The most useful definition is based on the last one, toxicity (its effects on your health).

Simply put, heavy metals are metals which have the ability to cause you, me and the environment, potential harm. It follows to say that heavy metal toxicity refers to the effects of these metals on your health. More commonly known as heavy metal poisoning. Clear enough? Let’s proceed.


In order for a person to be poisoned or experience toxic levels of heavy metals in his body, there are certain factors to consider. Remember these because they will be asked by your doctor if ever (We hope not, okay?) you find yourself poisoned.

The symptoms you will feel will depend on

  • Which heavy metal you were exposed to
  • The total amount your body absorbed
  • Whether the exposure was acute (sudden exposure to a large amount) or chronic (small amounts of exposure, over a long period of time, months to years).

In addition, your age can have a tremendous impact on how your body is able to handle the toxic levels. As a general rule, children absorb more heavy metals compared to adults. How the heavy metal enters your body is another compounding factor. These metals can gain access to your system through:

  • Inhalation
  • Ingestion
  • Absorption via mucous membranes (the lining of your stomach, intestines and airways)
  • Absorption through your skin


The harmful effects can differ from metal to metal depending on which of the above pathways it entered your body.

When you bring someone who is experiencing heavy metal poisoning to the treatment facility, make sure you know what happened. There are some cases wherein the only treatment that may be needed is to remove that person from the source of exposure. The sources of exposure can be any one of the following:

  • 1. Food you eat (diet)

    Fish & SeafoodHeavy metals could contaminate the food you eat during the preparation or packaging processes. Seaweed, seafood and fish products may accumulate heavy metals from the ocean they live in. Some heavy metals can also leach from the metal containers of your favorite drinks.

  • 2. Medications (drugs)

    Medication ( Pills )People who abuse drugs may also acquire heavy metal toxicity.

    I mean no disrespect when I mention this. Some Chinese and Ayurvedic medications can contain heavy metals, even the topical ones. Just be careful where you get your medications and supplements from.

  • 3. Environment

    Man Coughing This includes where you play (recreational) or work (occupational). Occupational exposure is responsible for a huge piece of the pie when it comes to heavy metal poisoning. Chronic occupational exposure can result in several groups of diseases that develop slowly over time (years) like:

    • Neuropathies – a group of diseases which affect the normal functioning of your peripheral nerves (the ones which connect your brain and spinal cord to rest of your body).

    • Pneumoconioses – a group of lung diseases caused by inhaling heavy metal particles.

    • Hepatorenal degeneration – over time, heavy metals can cause significant, irreversible liver and kidney changes which can ultimately lead to liver and kidney failure, respectively.
    • Cancers

    Someone Poisoning You

  • 4. Someone who hates you enough to poison you!

    Heavy metals have been used in the past to poison people. This can still be categorized as a source of exposure. Arsenic is the forerunner for this type of exposure.

  • 5. Others

    Bullet ShellsOther possible sources of heavy metals include the accidental ingestion of toys, chips of paint and even bullet shells! Another example is if a person gets shot in the stomach, the heavy metal in the bullet fragments could leach into the stomach (because of the highly acidic environment there) and cause heavy metal toxicity.

How Can They Cause Damage to Your Body?


In general, the mechanism by which these heavy metals inflict harm on your body is relatively fixed (predictable). Majority of them, upon making contact with your body will show their love for (affinity to) nitrogen, oxygen and sulfhydryl groups tucked away in your proteins. This can alter or modify proteins which act as enzymes (enzymes are made up of proteins, just in case you didn’t know that). Imagine how hard it will be for your body to function without the help of enzymes.

Your body’s first order of response and duty is to increase the manufacture of substances which can be called heavy metal loving (binding) proteins. They’re professionally named metalloproteins. Their main covert operation is to eliminate heavy metals through a process called ligand formation. Spectacular, right? This move remains effective until…

The Body's Cardiovascular SystemSome heavy metals decide to become extra sneaky and will try to pick a fight (compete) with ionized (those possessing a charge) elements. A good example is lead. Lead is really a quarrelsome heavy metal. Its favourite opponent is calcium. If lead wins, it roams around your body and deposits itself in your gum line and bones (instead of calcium). This proud display of victory can damage the framework of those vital structures.

Virtually, all organ systems can be affected to some degree, but the body systems most commonly damaged in heavy metal toxicity are:

  • Cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels)
  • Renal (kidneys)
  • Hematopoietic (parts of your spleen and bone marrow)
  • Digestive (stomach and intestines)
  • Nervous (brain, spinal cord and nerves)

In addition, lead can also cause damage to your reproductive and musculoskeletal systems (bones and muscles).

It’s Time for You to Investigate: The Common Signs and Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity

It’s useful to know some common, signs of general heavy metal toxicity. There are other diseases, which could present the same clues as heavy metal poisoning, so the clues listed here are simply suggestive of heavy metal poisoning. This means that all other possible causes should also be taken into consideration. Of course, the ultimate diagnosis of your condition will be done by your doctor and not you, wise guy.

I can’t stress this enough dear reader, eliciting a history of exposure is the most critical, I repeat, the most critical aspect of this scenario. And no, I wasn’t trying to sound like a parrot back there. I just wanted to stress that point.
These four are considered the hallmarks of ACUTE heavy metal (any) ingestion:
Abdominal Pain

  • Vomiting

  • Nausea – you have an aversion to food accompanied by a feeling of vomiting

  • Pain in your abdominal area

  • Diarrhea

Additionally, you can also experience dehydration from ongoing diarrhea.

Most medical doctors include lead poisoning in the list of diagnoses whenever there’s a combination of digestive problems, anemia (you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen in your blood), and neurological complaints.

CHRONIC heavy metal exposure can CLASSICALLY present as:

  • Anemia

  • Mild or subtle neurological problems

  • Mee’s lines – are transverse white lines found on your nail bed. To get an idea of what they look like, click on this link.

More specific symptoms are listed under the common heavy metals below. Symptoms presented here are the ones common to most cases of heavy metal poisoning and most of them are related to the organ systems most affected.

The Common Heavy Metals Which Can Poison Us Followed by a Brief Overview of Each

Lead Poisoning. Lead poisoning is the most common type of heavy metal poisoning. Lead messes up your renal (kidneys) system, nervous (brain and spinal cord) system and your body’s ability to produce blood cells in your marrow (medically called hematopoiesis). Acute poisoning usually results from inhalation and foreign body ingestion (swallowing something which contains lead). Though a little known cause of lead exposure is lead leaching from old bath tubs. Occupational exposure is also fairly common. Abdominal pain, vomiting, behavioural abnormalities (especially noticeable in children), headaches, impaired fine-motor coordination, hearing loss, foot and/or wrist drop (caused by peripheral neuropathy) and bluish discoloration along your gum line are clues which might point to lead poisoning.

Aluminium Toxicity. Aluminium is the most abundant metal on the surface of the Earth. We’re constantly exposed to relatively large amounts of aluminium from soil, food, air and water. If you have optimally functioning kidneys, aluminium exposure shouldn’t be a source of concern, except in huge amounts. Occupational exposure, cookware and antacids are some of the possible sources of aluminium toxicity. A change in your mental status is the most common sign that can point to aluminium toxicity.

Arsenic Poisoning. Some pesticides, contaminated drinking water and cigarette smoking are examples of possible sources of arsenic poisoning. If you’re poisoned with arsenic, you can experience bloody urine, uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting as well as a garlic odour, numbness or burning of the extremities, and hyperpigmentation and dermatitis of the skin.

Cadmium Toxicity. The most important aspect of cadmium poisoning is prevention. Up to now, there is no specific cure for cadmium poisoning. Chronic exposure to cadmium will affect your kidneys the most dramatically. It’s used in the making of batteries and pigments used in painting. Cadmium toxicity most commonly occurs from the food we eat. Losing your sense of smell (called anosmia) is one of the symptoms you can experience with cadmium toxicity. Other symptoms include an increase in saliva production and a metallic taste in the mouth, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, breathing difficulties with coughing and chest pain.

Copper Toxicity. Copper, unlike the other heavy metals, is a required micronutrient. I say required because it’s essential to life, your life. It’s normally found in everyday foods like whole grains, beef liver, peas, beans, green vegetables, potatoes, chocolate, nuts and shellfish. Copper keeps your blood pressure and heart rate within normal limits. It’s also needed by your gut in order to absorb iron. Copper toxicity comes from copper cookware and contaminated water (from copper pipes). You can experience blood in your stools, vomiting up blood, and yellowing of your skin if you have copper toxicity.

114158134Mercury Poisoning. Mercury can assume three different forms (organic, inorganic and elemental). All three forms can poison us. Your nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves), digestive system (stomach, intestines, etc.) and renal system (kidneys) are the main targets of mercury when it gains access to your body. Possible sources of exposure include eating fish from contaminated waters, amalgam fillings in your teeth, batteries and from chemistry lab accidents. Problems with memory, shaking and seizures as well as personality changes and irritability are just some of the symptoms you may experience with mercury toxicity.

The Lowdown

Just remember dear readers, heavy metals aren’t inherently evil or bad. We rely on them to get things done both internallyDon't Forget (within our bodies) and externally (from the environment). With the exception of some, the vast majority though, have no positive impact on our physiology.

I would like to end this article with the most practical advice for you. If you suspect heavy metal poisoning, take that person (or yourself) to the nearest medical facility. You NEED IMMEDIATE medical attention. A significant part of the medical attention given to you includes detoxification so talk to your healthcare practitioner about the best detox procedure to follow. Now click here to read part 2.

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