Medically reviewed on January 24, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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From environmental toxins to foreign pathogens, our bodies encounter harmful invaders that can disrupt intestinal, cognitive, and organ function .
More specifically, some heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury, which can be found in our drinking water supply, certain medications, and marine foods, may cause life-threatening damage if you fail to receive proper treatment .
In this context, heavy metals is a term used to describe a cluster of naturally-occurring elements that, by definition, have a high density and metallic weight .
Not all heavy metals are deleterious to your health. Indeed, some, such as iron, zinc, manganese, and copper, are absolutely essential to your well-being (albeit in proper amounts) .
But the effects of heavy metals in the body—namely, the ones that have given certain types of fish somewhat of a bad rap—can be toxic to the human body in excessive amounts. These include:
As the National Center for Biotechnology notes, these particular heavy metals “serve no biological purpose.” We don’t need them, and when we’re exposed to them, we may experience a litany of both immediate and long-lasting consequences.
Huge strides have been made to reduce toxic metal exposure to these dangerous, even lethal heavy metals. Lead paint, for example, which was once used for its durability for painting residential properties, was banned for residential use in 1977 .
Nonetheless, there’s still a risk of confronting heavy metals, especially for folks who work in certain industries such as mining and metallurgy. Heavy metals can be found in :
Exposure can occur through skin absorption, inhalation, or consumption .
Certain locations can also heighten your risk of chronic exposure to toxic heavy metals. Areas with volcanic interruptions, such as the Big Island of Hawaii, firing ranges, and factories that manufacture nickel-cadmium batteries and plastics are particularly high in heavy metals .
Surprising, yes, especially since many of us use and consume things we may not realize have heavy metals, like makeup, a plate of grilled swordfish at a posh restaurant, or an old lightbulb.
An isolated, chance encounter with secondhand smoke probably won’t result in abnormally high cadmium levels in your body.
And yet, if you live in a home that was built in the 1960s, frequently eat shellfish or smoke, you may have a higher toxic heavy metal build-up in your body than you realize—and you may feel ill because of it.
Why does this happen? Heavy metals are stubborn, tenacious, and rather aggressive elements that have the power to bind to cells in your body, which compromises the function of your organs and may lead to several chronic symptoms .
Related: What is arsenic poisoning?
Aches, cramps, tenderness—all can occur if heavy metals have accumulated to the point of heavy metal toxicity in your body . Exposure to water that’s contaminated with arsenic, for example, may result in :
Unfortunately, abdominal pain and GI issues can strike for any number of reasons, whether it be stress or a food allergy. This symptom, like several other effects of heavy metals on the body, often overlaps with other health conditions, making it hard to determine if the inclusion of heavy metals in your meds is causing your condition or if it’s due to another factor entirely.
Luckily, there’s an abundance of tests to assess the heavy metal levels in your body—a topic we’ll delve into below.
Anemia is a health condition chiefly characterized by an inadequate supply of healthy red blood cells, which are essential for transporting oxygen throughout your body [5, 8]. This condition has its own set of symptoms, namely:
The good news is this: Anemia can be treated, typically with iron supplements and other forms of non-invasive medical treatment.
There’s a close link between chronic heavy metal poisoning and cognitive harm . According to the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology, metals that have accumulated in the brain may affect your nervous system, resulting in various neurological complications and disorders, including :
We may not pay much mind to our kidneys, but they play a critical role in our bodies, helping to :
When kidney damage occurs —say, through chronic exposure to heavy metals—your kidneys aren’t able to perform their duties. This can lead to kidney failure—a dire health condition that requires medical intervention and may eventually (or even suddenly) become fatal .
If you experience any of the following and believe you may have been exposed to toxic metals, you may want to visit your healthcare practitioner for an evaluation :
Heavy metal toxicity can also contribute to or trigger :
In addition to keeping an eye peeled for the symptoms and complications outlined above, the only way you can ascertain if you’ve suffered from chronic heavy metal exposure is by taking a test :
Depending on your healthcare practitioner and your symptoms, you may also be asked to take one or all of the following:
Fortunately, if unusually high heavy metal levels are detected, there are dozens of treatments available, including medications to alleviate your symptoms and chelating agents to cleanse your body of these toxins.
Heavy metals may be prevalent, but there are specific precautions you can take to reduce your contact with them :