What is Heavy Metal Poisoning?

Heavy metals are everywhere, be it in the ground people walk on, in the water they drink, or in the products they use every day. But high levels of most heavy metals can make you sick. Heavy metal poisoning occurs due to excess intake of foods and drinks containing heavy metals, or inhaling contaminated dust or fumes. People who eat fish caught in areas with high level of mercury, work in factories which use heavy metals, use herbal medicines that contain heavy metals, or breathe in old lead paint and dust when their homes are getting renovated, get heavy metal poisoning. The symptoms of heavy metal poisoning differ with the metal and the amount of the metal which has caused this condition. Acute metal poisoning happens if one gets a high dose of metal at one time. The symptoms of this kind of metal poisoning usually develop quickly.

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Chronic metal poisoning occurs after a person comes in contact with a low dose of the metal over a long period of time. As the metal accumulates in the body, the individual gets sick.

Heavy Metals that Cause Poisoning in the Body

Heavy Metals that Cause Poisoning in the Body

There are 3 types of heavy metals that could cause poisoning in the body and these are:

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  1. Arsenic

    Arsenic is a heavy metal and high levels of arsenic in the body cause arsenic poisoning (heavy metal poisoning). The most common cause for long-term arsenic exposure is drinking contaminated water. Arsenic poisoning can produce symptoms like nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and watery, bloody diarrhea. Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause darkening and thickening of the skin, heart issue, brain disorders and even cancer.

  2. Lead

    Lead is another heavy metal which can cause poisoning in the body. Lead poisoning is caused by increased levels of lead in the body. The brain is most sensitive to this type of metal poisoning, i.e. lead poisoning. Headaches, memory problems, irritability, intellectual disabilities, behavioural problems, abdominal pain, constipation, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, and infertility are common signs of lead poisoning in the body. Some of ill effects of lead poisoning in the body can be permanent. Severe cases of lead poisoning can lead to anaemia, seizures, coma and even fatality. Exposure to lead can happen through contaminated air, food, water, dust, or consumer products. Children face a greater risk of lead poisoning as they are more likely to put objects, like lead containing paint, in their mouth and their body can also absorb a greater proportion of the lead which they consume. For adults, lead exposure at work is the most common cause of lead poisoning in the body. Certain occupations particularly carry a greater risk for causing lead poisoning in the body.

  3. Mercury

    Excess of mercury in the body can lead to mercury poisoning. The symptoms of this type of metal poisoning depend upon the dose, type, method, and duration of the exposure to mercury. Poor coordination, muscle weakness, skin rashes, numbness in the hands and feet, anxiety, poor eyesight, memory and speech problems, and hearing issues are common signs of mercury poisoning. High level exposure to methyl mercury can cause the condition known as Minamata disease. In children, Methylmercury exposure can cause acrodynia or pink's disease, a condition in which the skin becomes pinkish in colour and starts to peel off. Long-term complications of mercury poisoning include kidney problems and decreased intelligence. The different forms of mercury exposure include vapour, metal, salt and organic compound. It is through amalgam based dental fillings, mercury exposure at work, or eating fish, that can cause mercury poisoning in the body.

Other Heavy Metals Which Could Cause Poisoning in the Body

Other types of heavy metals which can lead to poisoning are copper, iron, cadmium and zinc. Small amounts of these metals are required to keep the body in good health. But, their excessive exposure can trigger health issues in the body.

How is Heavy Metal Poisoning Diagnosed & Treated?

Different tests are used to identify different kinds of heavy metal poisoning. The level of some metals can be tested through blood and urine examination, whereas some metals can require an X-ray for diagnosis. The doctor can also enquire about the patient’s job, diet, hobbies, and anything else, which could have put them in contact with dangerous substances. Tests for heavy metals are not routine. The doctor generally orders for tests only if an individual shows symptoms of heavy metal poisoning and if they have a history of exposure to heavy metals. The doctor can help an individual identify what makes them sick. It is best to avoid these things and stay protected against them. If diagnosed with metal poisoning, the individual’s stomach may need to be pumped to get the metals out. In case of serious metal poisoning, chelation therapy may need to be administered to treat the condition effectively. However, this therapy for treating metal poisoning can be dangerous and may not work with all heavy metals. People should not try to diagnose or treat heavy metal poisoning on their own, but should rather take the help of a doctor.

How Can Heavy Metal Poisoning Be Prevented?

To prevent heavy metal poisoning, it is important that:

  • Individuals working with heavy metals should always wear masks or other safety equipments.
  • The local fish advisories are checked to ensure that the fish being eaten is safe for consumption.
  • People living in homes built before 1978 get them tested for lead paint by an expert.
  • The labels on products should always be checked for heavy metals.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD,FFARCSI

Pain Assist Inc.

Last Modified On: March 18, 2019

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

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