What is heavy metal toxicity?

Updated: Dec 31, 2020
  • Author: Adefris Adal, MD, MS; Chief Editor: Sage W Wiener, MD  more...
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Some debate exists as to exactly what constitutes a "heavy metal" and which elements should properly be classified as such. Some authors have based the definition on atomic weight; others, on a specific gravity of greater than 4.0, or greater than 5.0. The actinides (the chemical elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103, actinium through lawrencium; eg, uranium) may or may not be included. Most recently, the term "heavy metal" has been used as a general term for those metals and semimetals with potential human or environmental toxicity. [1, 2] This definition includes a broad section of the periodic table under the rubric of interest.

Regardless of how one chooses to define the category, heavy metal toxicity is an uncommon diagnosis. With the possible exceptions of acute iron toxicity from intentional or unintentional ingestion and suspected lead toxicity, emergency physicians will rarely be alerted to the possibility of metal exposure. Yet, if unrecognized or inappropriately treated, heavy metal exposure can result in significant morbidity and mortality.

Many of the elements that can be considered heavy metals have no known benefit for human physiology. Lead, mercury, and cadmium are prime examples of such "toxic metals."

Yet, other metals are essential to human biochemical processes. For example, zinc is an important cofactor for several enzymatic reactions in the human body, vitamin B-12 has a cobalt atom at its core, and hemoglobin contains iron. Likewise, copper, manganese, selenium, chromium, and molybdenum are all trace elements that are important in the human diet. Another subset of metals includes those used therapeutically in medicine; aluminum, bismuth, gold, gallium, lithium, and silver are all part of the medical armamentarium. Any of these elements may have pernicious effects if taken in quantity or if the usual mechanisms of elimination are impaired.

The toxicity of heavy metals depends on a number of factors. Specific clinical manifestations vary according to the metal in question, the total dose absorbed, and whether the exposure was acute or chronic. The age of the person can also influence toxicity. For example, young children are more susceptible to the effects of lead exposure because they absorb several times the percent ingested compared with adults and because their brains are more plastic and even brief exposures may influence developmental processes. The route of exposure is also important. Elemental mercury is relatively inert in the gastrointestinal tract and also poorly absorbed through intact skin, yet inhaled or injected elemental mercury may have disastrous effects. [3]

Some elements may have very different toxic profiles depending on their chemical form. For example, barium sulfate is basically nontoxic, whereas other more water-soluble barium salts are rapidly absorbed and cause profound, potentially fatal hypokalemia. The toxicity of radioactive metals like polonium, which was discovered by Marie Curie but only recently brought to public attention after the 2006 murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, relates more to their ability to emit particles than to their ability to bind cell proteins.

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