Heavy Metals
  • Arsenic

  • Cadmium

  • Lead

Heavy Metals in Air, Food, and Water

The Bottom Line:

Heavy metals are naturally occurring and are so called because they have a high atomic weight and a density that is several times that of water. They are now widely distributed in the environment not only because they are naturally occurring but because they have many uses in medicine, in technology, in agriculture, in mining, and in many other industries. Arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium are of most concern to public health. These particular metals damage organs, cause cancer, and lead to neurological delays among children. While the health impacts and routes of exposure of individual metals are reasonably well understood, the compounding effects of being exposed to more than one heavy metal at once, even at levels that are considered safe, are just beginning to emerge in the literature. Whereas it was once prudent to consider exposure to these metals, one at a time and from only a single source, it has become increasingly important for individuals to evaluate multiple possible exposures from multiple metals to identify whether their health is endangered by these ubiquitous elements.

Should you Do More?
As a first step to understanding the health risk due to heavy metals, review the lists below for possible exposures you may be experiencing every day. If you suspect that you are exposed to too much of one heavy metal or exposed to combinations of heavy metals that can add up to an overall serious health risk, discuss your concerns with your doctor. Simple tests are available (hair, urine, blood, fingernails) to evaluate recent exposure to many of these metals and can provide peace of mind regarding the long term, serious consequences of regularly being exposed to any one or more of these elements.

You may be exposed to too much Arsenic (As) if you drink or eat regularly:
  • Red wine from a single manufacturer or viticultural area.
  • Large amounts of apple, grape, apple-containing, or grape-containing juice.
  • Contaminated well water.
  • Products containing brown rice syrup.
  • Large quantities of rice.
  • Consume frequent and large quantities of certain fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, swordfish)

Children who regularly play in arsenic contaminated soil (near wood treated with arsenic or in certain urban areas that have recently flooded) may also be ingesting dangerous amounts of arsenic.

You may be exposed to too much Lead (Pb) if you:
  • Inhale dust containing paint particles from house paints made before 1978.
  • Ingest paint chips or residue from paint chips or flakes from house paints made before 1978.
  • Play with toys made or painted before 1976.
  • Use toys that are painted outside the United States.
  • Inhale fumes from car and car exhaust in countries outside the U.S. where leaded fuel is still in use.
  • Drink water from homes built prior to 1930.
  • Drink water from homes built in the last five years which have copper pipes.

You may be exposed to too much Cadmium (Cd) if you:
  • Smoke cigarettes.
  • Inhale exhaust gases from municipal waste incineration or non-ferrous metal smelters.
  • Work with recycling electronic waste.
  • Are involved with the manufacturing of phosphate fertilizers.

Cadmium is present in the food supply and most individuals are exposed to cadmium through foods grown in soils that contain cadmium. There has only been one documented incident of cadmium poisoning due to eating food from cadmium contaminated soils (in Japan in the 1950s). Thus, most individuals need only be concerned about additional cadmium exposure resulting from one or more of the risk factors above.

Know More:
Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR)

  • Hutchinson, T. C., & Meema, K. M. (1987). Lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic in the environment. John Wiley: New York, NY.
  • Tchounwou, P. B., Yedjou, C. G., Patlolla, A. K., & Sutton, D. J. (2012). Heavy Metals Toxicity and the Environment. EXS, 101, 133–164. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-7643-8340-4_6