Heavy metals are are elements that are naturally found in the earth. They’re used in many modern-day applications, such as agriculture, medicine, and industry.
Your body even naturally contains some. Zinc, iron, and copper, for example, are necessary for regular body function, as long as they aren’t present in toxic amounts.
Heavy metal poisoning occurs when your body’s soft tissues absorb too much of a particular metal.
The most common metals that the human body can absorb in toxic amounts are:
You might be exposed to high concentrations of these metals from food, air or water pollution, as well as medicine, food containers with improper coating, industrial exposure, or lead-based paint.
In the United States, heavy metal poisoning is very rare. It only occurs when you’ve been exposed to a significant amount of heavy metal, usually over a long period of time. But the popularity of over-the-counter (OTC) products that claim to detoxify your body of heavy metals can make it seem more common than it is.
Read on to learn more heavy metal poisoning and whether those OTC detox kits offer any benefits.
The symptoms of heavy metal poisoning vary, depending on the type of metal involved.
Common symptoms across several types of heavy metal poisoning include:
- abdominal pain
- shortness of breath
- tingling in your hands and feet
Children with heavy metal poisoning may have unusually formed or weakened bones. Pregnant people may also have a miscarriage or deliver prematurely.
Certain types of heavy metal poisoning can cause additional symptoms. Here’s a look at the symptoms linked to some of the most common types.
Mercury poisoning symptoms:
- lack of coordination
- muscle weakness
- hearing and speech difficulties
- nerve damage in your hands and face
- vision changes
- trouble walking
Lead poisoning symptoms:
- aggressive behavior
- sleep problems
- high blood pressure
- loss of appetite
- memory loss
- loss of developmental skills in children
Arsenic poisoning symptoms:
- nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- red or swollen skin
- spots on your skin, such as warts or lesions
- unusual heart rhythm
- muscle cramps
Cadmium poisoning symptoms:
- breathing problems
- muscle pain
Heavy metals can enter your body in different ways. You might consume them in the food you eat or absorb them through your skin, for example.
Here’s how you might be exposed to various heavy metals. Keep in mind that heavy metal poisoning occurs with heavy or frequent exposure, usually over a long period of time. Occasional exposure won’t lead to heavy metal poisoning.
- working near a hazardous waste site
- living in an area that has high levels in rocks, water, and soil
- ingesting insecticides, pesticides, or herbicides
- eating contaminated seafood or algae
- drinking contaminated water
- working in an industrial setting, especially one where ore is processed or smelted
- welding on alloys that contain cadmium or using silver solders
- inhaling cigarette smoke
- living in a home with high levels of lead-based paint
- doing industrial construction work, radiator repair, or smelter operations
- being in firing ranges
- using kohl cosmetics
- applying progressive hair dyes, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to change this
- using foreign digestive remedies, calcium products, kohl, surma, kajal, or progressive hair dyes
- mining, producing, or transporting mercury
- mining and refining gold and silver ores
- consuming contaminated fish or water
- manufacturing mirrors, X-ray machines, incandescent lights, or vacuum pumps
While anyone can develop heavy metal poisoning, children are more vulnerable to it, particularly lead poisoning. Older homes sometimes contain lead paint. If a child touches a wall with lead paint before touching their mouth, for example, they may be exposed. This can lead to brain damage, since their brains are still developing.
Still, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, the number of children with signs of potentially harmful lead levels has dropped by 85 percent over the last 20 years.
Doctors can usually check for heavy metal poisoning with a simple blood test known as a heavy metals panel or heavy metal toxicity test.
To do the test, they’ll take a small blood sample and test it for signs of heavy metals. If you have symptoms of heavy metal poisoning, but your blood test only shows low levels, you doctor might do some additional testing.
These may include:
- kidney function tests
- liver function studies
- urine analysis
- hair analysis
- fingernail analysis
For mild cases of heavy metal poisoning, just eliminating your exposure to heavy metals can be enough to treat the condition. Depending on the underlying cause, this might mean taking some time away from work or changing your diet.
Your doctor can give you more specific recommendations on how to reduce your exposure.
For more severe cases, the standard treatment is chelation therapy. This involves giving medication, either through a pill or injection, that binds to the heavy metals in your body.
These medications are known as chelators. As they bind to the metals, chelators help to usher them out of your body as waste. Learn more about how chelation therapy works.
The Internet is full of detox kits and cleansing protocols that claim to eliminate heavy metals from your body.
While these might seem like a safer, less expensive alternative to seeing a doctor, they aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And most of them haven’t been evaluated for safety or effectiveness.
In addition, some of these products can cause a range of other issues, such as:
- allergic reactions
- mineral deficiencies
- birth defects
- kidney injuries
Left untreated, heavy metal poisoning can have lasting effects on your health. It’s important to work closely with a doctor to ensure that you’re following the most effective treatment plan for your needs.
Heavy metal poisoning is rare in the United States, but if you do develop it, chelation therapy is usually an effective treatment.
If you’re concerned about heavy metal poisoning, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your exposure to heavy metal poisoning: