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How to test for heavy metals in the body: a guide

Medically reviewed on July 13, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. 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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Each day, whether we realize it or not, our bodies are exposed to a range of heavy metals in our physical environment. While most metals are relatively harmless, excessive exposure for prolonged durations can result in some undesirable health outcomes.

Understanding the relationship between heavy metals and your body is an important step toward gaining a big-picture perspective of your health and wellness. Interested in learning about how to test for heavy metals in the body? Keep reading for everything you need to know.

What are heavy metals?

Heavy metals refer to a class of substances with distinctly high atomic weights and densities. [1] While seldom found in the natural geological makeup of the Earth, the heavy metals we encounter in modern life are largely the result of human industrial development. [2]

There are about 40 heavy metals known to science. [2] Some of the most common ones include: [2]

  • Iron
  • Cobalt
  • Zinc
  • Cadmium
  • Mercury
  • Lead
  • Arsenic

While your body needs select heavy metals to stay healthy (e.g. zinc), chronic exposure to high levels of certain heavy metals can cause heavy metal poisoning.

Symptoms and severity of heavy metal poisoning can vary widely depending on the causal heavy metal and level of exposure. Some common signs of heavy metal poisoning include: [3]

  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tingling in your extremities
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

What causes heavy metal poisoning?

Because heavy metals are ubiquitous constituents of the modern physical environment, there are a host of ways you can encounter them in your everyday life.

Some heavy metals, like arsenic, can turn up in human water systems, while others, like cadmium, can result from industrial runoff contaminating our food sources. [2]

The most common culprits of heavy metal exposure include: [3]

  • Air pollution
  • Contaminated water systems
  • Cosmetics, cleaning, and other common household products
  • Food packaging coating
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Insecticides and pesticides
  • Smoking tobacco

One of the most well-known examples of serious heavy metal poisoning is lead poisoning.

Once a common ingredient in household paint, lead is still present in many buildings in use today. If you’re an occupant of an older building, it’s important to have your home tested to ensure there isn’t lead exposure—especially if you have children in your household, for whom lead exposure can be especially dangerous. [3]

How are heavy metals in the body tested?

Currently, the best heavy metal testing in the body is by taking a heavy metal blood test. This is a simple, virtually risk-free procedure that may be administered in one of two ways: by your healthcare provider or with a home testing kit.

Heavy metal blood tests from your healthcare provider

Heavy metal tests administered by healthcare providers usually screen for four substances that can be dangerous in high quantities. These include: [3]

  • Arsenic
  • Cadmium
  • Lead
  • Mercury

While less common, some healthcare providers may also be able to measure blood levels of: [3]

  • Aluminum
  • Copper
  • Thallium
  • Zinc

In general, it’s recommended that you eliminate seafood from your diet at least 48 hours before your blood test. This is because some seafood contains high levels of mercury, which can inflate or skew the mercury levels recorded in your test results. [3]

Bear in mind that some heavy metals don’t linger very long in your bloodstream, so even if your exposure is high your blood test results may not record your level of exposure. If you’re concerned about exposure to a toxic heavy metal, talk to your healthcare provider about your options for hair or urine tests, which may paint a fuller picture of your exposure to noxious substances. [3]

Heavy metal home testing kits

If you’d prefer not to have your blood drawn, you can also screen your body for heavy metals by providing a urine sample with an at-home lab test.

Home testing kits are a convenient, minimally invasive alternative to being screened by a healthcare provider. Not only can they screen for a toxic heavy metal, but they may also tell you whether or not your body has sufficient levels of certain metals your body needs to stay healthy, like selenium and iodine.

The Everlywell at-home Heavy Metals Test, for instance, screens for 6 metals including:

  • Arsenic
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Bromine
  • Selenium
  • Iodine

What happens if I have high levels of heavy metals?

It’s not uncommon to encounter heavy metals in the physical environment, but it can be difficult to gauge the toll they take on our health. This is because the effects of heavy metal exposure are cumulative—in other words, they more commonly lead to long-term health concerns rather than acute distress or toxicity. [7]

As such, heavy metal testing can be an important part of moderating and regulating our exposure to certain substances. If your heavy metal blood test exhibits elevated levels of certain heavy metals, there are two ways to minimize your health risks: [3]

  • Elimination – Elimination is a behavioral measure of treatment where an individual makes lifestyle adjustments to ensure they avoid certain toxic metals. If your healthcare provider prescribes an elimination protocol, it’s important to continue blood testing until it confirms that your body’s heavy metal levels have returned to normal.
  • Chelation therapy – If you have dangerously high levels of mercury or lead in your body, your healthcare provider may advise you to consider chelation therapy. This course of treatment involves taking medication or IV treatments that inject a substance known as EDTA into your bloodstream. [8] EDTA transforms certain heavy metals into a compound known as a chelate, which your body is then able to expel on its own in the form of urine.

Test your heavy metal levels with Everlywell

Whether you’re concerned about your exposure to toxic metals or just want to confirm that your healthy mineral levels are in check, the Everlywell at-home Heavy Metals Test provides an accessible way to get the answers you’re looking for.

Using a small urine sample, this test screens for 4 heavy metals and 2 essential trace minerals to determine your potential level of exposure to toxins. Each Everlywell test is screened by CLIA-certified labs and reviewed by board-certified physicians—with rigorous privacy protection to ensure your data is safe throughout the testing process.

If you’re ready to paint a fuller picture of your health profile, browse the complete range of Everlywell at-home test kits today to start taking control of your well-being.

Heavy metal poisoning symptoms

How do you get mercury poisoning?

Cadmium poisoning: causes and symptoms


References

  1. Heavy Metals. UN Environment Programme.. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  2. Heavy Metals. NC Department of Health and Human Services. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  3. Heavy Metal Blood Test. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  4. The Effects of Cadmium Toxicity. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  5. Heavy Metal Toxicity. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  6. Lead Poisoning in Children. National Library of Medicine. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  7. Heavy metals and your health: Frequently asked questions about testing, treatment and prevention. Oregon Public Health Division. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
  8. Chelation therapy for heart disease: Does it work? Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed July 13, 2022.
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