Heavy Metal Poisoning
Heavy metal poisoning is the toxic accumulation of heavy metals in the soft tissues of the body.
Heavy metals are chemical elements that have a specific gravity (a measure of density) at least five times that of water. The heavy metals most often implicated in human poisoning are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. Some heavy metals, such as zinc, copper, chromium, iron, and manganese, are required by the body in small amounts, but these same elements can be toxic in larger quantities.
Heavy metals may enter the body in food, water, or air, or by absorption through the skin. Once in the body, they compete with and displace essential minerals such as zinc, copper, magnesium, and calcium, and interfere with organ system function. People may come in contact with heavy metals in industrial work, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and agriculture. Children may be poisoned as a result of playing in contaminated soil.
Causes and symptoms
Symptoms will vary, depending on the nature and the quantity of the heavy metal ingested. Patients may complain of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, sweating, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Depending on the metal, there may be blue-black lines in the gum tissues. In severe cases, patients exhibit obvious impairment of cognitive, motor, and language skills. The expression "mad as a hatter" comes from the mercury poisoning prevalent in 17th century France among hatmakers who soaked animal hides in a solution of mercuric nitrate to soften the hair.
In childhood, blood lead levels above 80 µg/dL generally indicate lead poisoning, however, significantly lower levels (>.30 µg/dL) can cause mental retardation and other cognitive and behavioral problems in affected children. The Centers for Disease Control and Pevention considers a blood lead level of 10 µg/dL or higher in children a cause for concern. In adults, symptoms of lead poisoning are usually seen when blood lead levels exceed 80 µg/dL for a number of weeks.
Blood levels of mercury should not exceed 3.6 µg/dL, while urine levels should not exceed 15 µg/dL. Symptoms of mercury poisoning may be seen when mercury levels exceed 20 µg/dL in blood and 60 µg/dL in urine. Mercury levels in hair may be used to gauge the severity of chronic mercury exposure.
Since arsenic is rapidly cleared from the blood, blood arsenic levels may not be very useful in diagnosis. Arsenic in the urine (measured in a 24-hour collection following 48 hours without eating seafood) may exceed 50 µg/dL in people with arsenic poisoning. If acute arsenic poisoning is suspected, an x ray may reveal ingested arsenic in the abdomen (since arsenic is opaque to x rays). Arsenic may also be detected in the hair and nails for months following exposure.
Cadmium toxicity is generally indicated when urine levels exceed 10 µg/dL of creatinine and blood levels exceed 5 µg/dL.
The treatment for most heavy metal poisoning is chelation therapy. A chelating agent specific to the metal involved is given either orally, intramuscularly, or intravenously. The three most common chelating agents are calcium disodium edetate, dimercaprol (BAL), and penicillamine. The chelating agent encircles and binds to the metal in the body's tissues, forming a complex; that complex is then released from the tissue to travel in the bloodstream. The complex is filtered out of the blood by the kidneys and excreted in the urine. This process may be lengthy and painful, and typically requires hospitalization. Chelation therapy is effective in treating lead, mercury, and arsenic poisoning, but is not useful in treating cadmium poisoning. To date, no treatment has been proven effective for cadmium poisoning.
In cases of acute mercury or arsenic ingestion, vomiting may be induced. Washing out the stomach (gastric lavage) may also be useful. The patient may also require treatment such as intravenous fluids for complications of poisoning such as shock, anemia, and kidney failure.
The chelation process can only halt further effects of the poisoning; it cannot reverse neurological damage already sustained.
Because exposure to heavy metals is often an occupational hazard, protective clothing and respirators should be provided and worn on the job. Protective clothing should then be left at the work site and not worn home, where it could carry toxic dust to family members. Industries are urged to reduce or replace the heavy metals in their processes wherever possible. Exposure to environmental sources of lead, including lead-based paints, plumbing fixtures, vehicle exhaust, and contaminated soil, should be reduced or eliminated.
Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. Ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Food and Drug Administration. Office of Inquiry and Consumer Information. 5600 Fisher Lane, Room 12-A-40, Rockville, MD 20857. (301) 827-4420. <http://www.fda.gov/fdahomepage.html>.
National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Clearinghouse. EnviroHealth, 2605 Meridian Parkway, Suite 115, Durham, NC 27713. (919) 361-9408.
National Organization for Rare Disorders. PO Box 8923, New Fairfield, CT 06812-8923. (800) 999-6673. <http://www.rarediseases.org>.
Chelation—The process by which a molecule encircles and binds to a metal and removes it from tissue.
Heavy metal—One of 23 chemical elements that has a specific gravity (a measure of density) at least five times that of water.