Heavy Metal Poisoning (Lead, Arsenic, Mercury & More)

Updated in February 2024

Heavy metal poisoning is caused by chemical elements that, in their pure form, are solid and can be toxic to the body when consumed. These metals can cause damage to various organs like the lungs, kidneys, stomach and even the brain.

Although some heavy metals, such as copper, are important for the body in minimal quantities, others like mercury or arsenic can be very toxic and should be avoided. These metals are often present in contaminated water and, therefore, can end up contaminating the air and also food, gradually causing health problems.

Heavy metals do not cause symptoms when they first come into contact with the body, however, they have the ability to accumulate within the body's cells, and can lead to problems like as kidney malfunctioning and brain injuries, and they may be associated with a higher risk for cancer.

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Common metal poisonings

The heavy metals that are most dangerous to health are mercury, arsenic, lead, barium, cadmium and chromium. Symptoms may vary depending on the type of metal that accumulates in the body.

1. Lead poisoning

Lead poisoning is often difficult to identify, and even apparently healthy people can have high levels of lead in their bodies. As it accumulates in the body, lead may start to symptoms like:

  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Constant abdominal pain
  • Memory and concentration difficulties
  • Anemia with no apparent cause

In more serious cases, it may cause problems in the kidneys, brain and can lead to infertility or miscarriage in pregnant women.

Where it's found: Lead can be found throughout the environment, including air, water and soil, as it is a metal widely used by industry to make objects such as batteries, water pipes, paint or gasoline, for example.

How to prevent contamination: You should avoid having objects with this type of metal in your home, especially in plumbing or wall paint.

2. Arsenic poisoning

Arsenic is a type of heavy metal that can lead to the appearance of symptoms like:

  • Nausea, vomiting and severe diarrhea
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Changes in heart rhythm
  • Constant tingling in the hands and feet

These symptoms can appear within 30 minutes. However, very low amounts slowly start to accumulate in the body and can increase the risk for cancer in the skin, lungs, liver or bladder.

Where it's found: It can be found in paints, dyes, medicine, soaps, fertilizers and pesticides. Furthermore, arsenic can also be found in water from private wells that are not regularly tested and disinfected by sewage companies.

How to prevent contamination: Avoid using use materials that contain this type of metal in their composition and avoid consuming foods with dyes or untreated water.

3. Mercury poisoning

Mercury poisoning generally causes symptoms such as:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constant diarrhea
  • Constant feeling of anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Increased blood pressure

In the long term, poisoning with this type of metal can also cause kidney and brain problems, as well as vision changes, difficulty hearing and memory problems.

Where it's found: Contaminated water, direct contact with mercury, contact with the inside of lamps or batteries and some dental treatments.

How to prevent contamination: Do not consume water or food that appears to be contaminated, and swap out any objects that may contain mercury in their composition, especially thermometers and old light bulbs.

4. Barium poisoning

Barium is a type of heavy metal that can cause symptoms such as:

  • Vomiting;
  • Abdominal cramps and diarrhea;
  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Muscle weakness.

Additionally, some people may experience a gradual increase in blood pressure.

Where it's found: Some types of fluorescent lamps, fireworks, paints, bricks, ceramic pieces, glass, rubber and even some diagnostic tests.

How to prevent contamination: Avoid visiting construction sites without a protective mask to avoid inhaling or ingesting dust contaminated with barium.

5. Cadmium poisoning

Ingesting cadmium can lead to:

  • Stomachache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Over time, ingesting or inhaling this metal can lead to kidney disease, lung problems and weakening of the bones.

Where it's found: In all types of soil or stones, as well as in coal, mineral fertilizers, batteries and plastics from some toys.

How to prevent contamination: Do not use materials that contain this type of metal in their composition and avoid smoking, as cigarettes contain charcoal that facilitates contact between cadmium and the lungs.

6. Chromium poisoning

The main form of chromium poisoning occurs due to inhalation. When this happens, symptoms such as:

  • Nose irritation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Asthma and constant coughing

Over time, permanent damage to the liver, kidneys, circulatory system and skin may occur.

Where it's found: Chromium is used to make objects in stainless steel, cement, paper and rubber and, therefore, can be easily inhaled in construction sites or when burning paper or rubber, for example.

How to prevent contamination: You should only visit construction sites with a mask and avoid burning paper or rubber.