Heavy Metal Poisoning (Toxicity)
What is heavy metal poisoning?
Heavy metal poisoning occurs when microscopic molecules of metals accumulate within your body after exposure. Heavy metals attach to your cells and prevent them from performing their functions, which causes symptoms that could be life threatening without treatment.
What metals cause heavy metal poisoning (toxicity)?
Several metals can be toxic to your body. The most common toxic metals are:
|Type of metal||Where it can be found|
|Lead||Contaminated water from lead pipes, batteries, paint, gasoline, construction materials.|
|Mercury||Liquid in thermometers, lightbulbs, dental amalgam (“silver”) fillings, batteries, seafood, topical antiseptics.|
|Arsenic||Topical creams, herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, paints, enamels, glass, contaminated water, seafood, algae.|
|Cadmium||Cigarette smoke, metal plating, batteries.|
|Thallium||Rodenticides, pesticides, fireworks.|
How does someone get heavy metal poisoning?
You can get heavy metal poisoning by exposing yourself to heavy metals. Heavy metals form naturally within the Earth’s crust. We interact with small amounts of heavy metals every day, like when you check the temperature of your thermometer, which uses mercury. Heavy metal poisoning occurs when metals get into your body. This can happen if you’re exposed to a large amount of metal including:
- Eating a lot of food that contains metals (fish).
- Drinking water from older water supply systems.
- Working with metals on the job.
- Taking medications or supplements with high amounts of metallic elements.
- Handling metals or products made with a large amount of metal (like paint or pesticides) without using personal protective equipment.
Most metals that cause poisoning are in a microscopic (molecular) form when they enter your body. They are so small, you won’t be able to see them. Heavy metals can enter your body by:
- Absorbing into your skin.
- Breathing in or inhaling tiny metal molecules.
- Eating or drinking (ingesting) the metal from food or water.
Who does heavy metal poisoning affect?
Heavy metal poisoning can affect anyone who has exposure to heavy metals. This most often affects people who:
- Drink water from pipes made of older metals (lead).
- Work with metals.
- Take more than the prescribed dosage of medicine or supplements that contain metal.
- Live in an environment with high air or water pollution.
- Eat a lot of foods that contain metal.
- Consume a non-edible product made with metal (paint).
Children are at a higher risk of heavy metal poisoning because their bodies are still developing and they are more sensitive to the harmful effects of heavy metals.
How common is heavy metal poisoning?
The exact rate of occurrence is unknown, but in the United States, heavy metal poisoning is rare since it only affects people who have exposure to heavy metals. The number of people diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning decreased significantly over the last 20 years because of awareness and preventative measures to remove heavy metals from homes.
What does heavy metal poisoning do to my body?
Exposure to heavy metals can be dangerous to your health. While we use and interact with metals every day, certain heavy metals are toxic because the molecules that make up the metal damage or negatively interact with the cells in your body that are essential to keep your organs functioning.
Your body has small amounts of metals in it already, like iron, copper and zinc. These metals are important to keep your organs functioning. If you have too much metal accumulated within your body, it can damage your vital organs like your brain and liver.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of heavy metal poisoning?
Signs and symptoms vary for each type of metal and range in severity based on your body’s exposure. Symptoms could include:
- Abdominal pain.
- Chills or a low body temperature.
- Feeling weak.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- A scratchy feeling in your throat.
- Numbness or prickly sensation in your hands and feet.
Severe symptoms of heavy metal poisoning that can be life threatening include:
- Abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia).
- Brain damage and memory loss.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Kidney damage.
- Liver damage.
- Miscarriage in people who are pregnant.
- Risk of developing cancer.
If you experience severe symptoms after exposure to a heavy metal, visit the emergency room immediately.
What causes heavy metal poisoning?
An accumulation of heavy metals within your body causes heavy metal poisoning. The accumulation happens after you’re exposed to heavy metals. Once inside of your body, the metals reside in your blood or tissues, which spreads from your head to your toes.
Heavy metals fight with components in your cells, like enzymes and proteins. These components are important to help your organs function. If your organs aren’t able to do their job because they’re getting bullied by heavy metals, you experience symptoms of heavy metal poisoning that can be life threatening without treatment.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is heavy metal poisoning diagnosed?
It can be difficult for providers to diagnose heavy metal poisoning because symptoms are similar to other conditions. Tell your provider if you know you had exposure to a toxic metal. After a physical exam, your provider will offer several tests to check for heavy metal poisoning including:
- Heavy metal blood test.
- Complete blood count (CBC).
- Imaging tests like an X-ray.
- Kidney function tests.
- Liver function studies.
- Urine protein test.
What does a heavy metal blood test look for?
A heavy metal blood test, also known as a heavy metals panel or heavy metal toxicity test, looks at a small sample of your blood for the presence of metals. The test looks for common metals such as:
The test can also look for less common metals including:
The results of this test identify if you’ve had exposure to toxic metals and how much of that metal is in your body.
Management and Treatment
How is heavy metal poisoning treated?
Treatment for heavy metal poisoning varies based on the type of metal that accumulated in your body. The goal of treatment is to remove the metal from your body. Treatment could include:
- Taking chelating agents to remove toxic metals from your body through your urine.
- Pumping your stomach (gastric lavage).
- Hemodialysis for kidney failure.
- Medicines to treat symptoms.
Some metals, like cadmium, don’t have an effective treatment to remove it from your body. Studies are ongoing to find a treatment for cadmium poisoning.
What can’t I eat or drink with heavy metal poisoning?
If you have heavy metal poisoning, you should avoid eating and drinking food items that contain metals, especially seafood like fish. If you live in an environment where your water may be contaminated with heavy metals, don’t drink water from your tap. Instead, drink filtered or bottled water.
What medications treat heavy metal poisoning?
There are several drugs available to remove heavy metals from your body. These drugs are chelating agents that attract the metal to the components in the medicine, then pass the metal out of your body as waste in your urine. Common chelating agents include:
- Dimercaptosuccinic acid (succimer).
- Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA).
These chelating agents are usually given to people with severe heavy metal poisoning through an IV that places a small needle into your vein to slowly distribute the medicine into your body. Chelating agents can also attach to healthy metals and minerals in your body, so your provider will closely monitor how your body responds to treatment.
How soon after treatment will I feel better?
The amount of time between treatment and when you’ll feel better depends on the amount of metal in your body that needs to be removed. After treatment begins, you could see symptoms lessen within a few hours and other cases may last several months with continuous treatment.
Treatment may be ongoing for people with severe symptoms that affect the function of their organs.
How can I reduce my risk of heavy metal poisoning?
You can reduce your risk of heavy metal poisoning by minimizing your exposure to heavy metals. You can do this by:
- Wearing personal protective equipment, like a mask and gloves, when working with heavy metals.
- Calling your local environmental protection agency to clean up any heavy metal spills.
- Limiting the amount of fish that contain metals (mercury) in your diet.
- Contacting your local health department, landlord or inspector to make sure you don’t have any heavy metals in your home.
- Washing your hands before you eat.
- Reading labels on products you purchase to see if they contain metals (baby food).
If you live in an environment with high levels of pollution or unsafe drinking water, you are at risk of getting heavy metal poisoning again if your environment doesn’t improve.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have heavy metal poisoning?
Removing heavy metals from your body leads to a positive prognosis. An early diagnosis and treatment prevent life-threatening symptoms from affecting your body. Untreated cases of heavy metal poisoning can lead to irreversible symptoms like brain damage, kidney and liver failure.
Your provider will closely monitor your symptoms and treatment. You will need multiple blood and urine tests to make sure that the toxic metals are leaving your body.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Visit your healthcare provider or contact poison control if you experience symptoms of heavy metal poisoning, especially after being exposed to heavy metals.
If you experience any severe symptoms of heavy metal poisoning, visit the emergency room immediately.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- Are there side effects to the treatment you recommend?
- How long until heavy metals are out of my body?
- How do I prevent heavy metal poisoning from happening again?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Heavy metal poisoning is a serious condition that occurs when you’re exposed to heavy metals like lead and mercury. Heavy metal poisoning isn’t the result of listening to too much rock and roll music. If you know that you were exposed to heavy metals and you’re experiencing symptoms, visit your healthcare provider. Identifying and removing the heavy metal from your body leads to a positive outcome that prevents life-threatening symptoms.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy