heavy metal poisoning

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Related to heavy metal poisoning: lead poisoning, mercury poisoning

Heavy Metal Poisoning



Heavy metal poisoning is the toxic accumulation of heavy metals in the soft tissues of the body.


Heavy metals are chemical elements that have a specific gravity (a measure of density) at least five times that of water. The heavy metals most often implicated in accidental human poisoning are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. More recently, thallium has gained some attention in the media as the poison used in several murder cases in the 1990s. Some heavy metals, such as zinc, copper, chromium, iron, and manganese, are required by the body in small amounts, but these same elements can be toxic in larger quantities.
Heavy metals may enter the body in food, water, or air, or by absorption through the skin. Once in the body, they compete with and displace essential minerals such as zinc, copper, magnesium, and calcium, and interfere with organ system function. People may come in contact with heavy metals in industrial work, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and agriculture. Children may be poisoned as a result of playing in contaminated soil. Lead poisoning in adults has been traced to the use of lead-based glazes on pottery vessels intended for use with food, and contamination of Ayurvedic and other imported herbal remedies. Arsenic and thallium have been mixed with food or beverages to attempt suicide or poison others.
Another form of mercury poisoning that is seen more and more frequently in the United States is self-injected mercury under the skin. Some boxers inject themselves with mercury in the belief that it adds muscle bulk. Metallic mercury is also used in folk medicine or religious rituals in various cultures. These practices increase the risk of mercury poisoning of children in these ethnic groups or subcultures.

Causes and symptoms

Symptoms will vary, depending on the nature and the quantity of the heavy metal ingested. Patients may complain of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, sweating, and a metallic taste in the mouth. Depending on the metal, there may be blue-black lines in the gum tissues. In severe cases, patients exhibit obvious impairment of cognitive, motor, and language skills. The expression "mad as a hatter" comes from the mercury poisoning prevalent in 17th-century France among hatmakers who soaked animal hides in a solution of mercuric nitrate to soften the hair.


Heavy metal poisoning may be detected using blood and urine tests, hair and tissue analysis, or x ray. The diagnosis is often overlooked, however, because many of the early symptoms of heavy metal poisoning are nonspecific. The doctor should take a thorough patient history with particular emphasis on the patient's occupation.
In childhood, blood lead levels above 80 ug/dL generally indicate lead poisoning, however, significantly lower levels (>30 ug/dL) can cause mental retardation and other cognitive and behavioral problems in affected children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a blood lead level of 10 ug/dL or higher in children a cause for concern. In adults, symptoms of lead poisoning are usually seen when blood lead levels exceed 80 ug/dL for a number of weeks.
Blood levels of mercury should not exceed 3.6 ug/dL, while urine levels should not exceed 15 ug/dL. Symptoms of mercury poisoning may be seen when mercury levels exceed 20 ug/dL in blood and 60 ug/dL in urine. Mercury levels in hair may be used to gauge the severity of chronic mercury exposure.
Since arsenic is rapidly cleared from the blood, blood arsenic levels may not be very useful in diagnosis. Arsenic in the urine (measured in a 24-hour collection following 48 hours without eating seafood) may exceed 50 ug/dL in people with arsenic poisoning. If acute arsenic or thallium poisoning is suspected, an x ray may reveal these substances in the abdomen (since both metals are opaque to x rays). Arsenic may also be detected in the hair and nails for months following exposure.
Cadmium toxicity is generally indicated when urine levels exceed 10 ug/dL of creatinine and blood levels exceed 5 ug/dL.
Thallium poisoning often causes hair loss (alopecia), numbness, and a burning sensation in the skin as well as nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. As little as 15-20 mg of thallium per kilogram of body weight is fatal in humans; however, smaller amounts can cause severe damage to the nervous system.


When heavy metal poisoning is suspected, it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible to minimize long-term damage to the patient's nervous system and digestive tract. Heavy metal poisoning is considered a medical emergency, and the patient should be taken to a hospital emergency room.
The treatment for most heavy metal poisoning is chelation therapy. A chelating agent specific to the metal involved is given either orally, intramuscularly, or intravenously. The three most common chelating agents are calcium disodium edetate, dimercaprol (BAL), and penicillamine. The chelating agent encircles and binds to the metal in the body's tissues, forming a complex; that complex is then released from the tissue to travel in the bloodstream. The complex is filtered out of the blood by the kidneys and excreted in the urine. This process may be lengthy and painful, and typically requires hospitalization. Chelation therapy is effective in treating lead, mercury, and arsenic poisoning, but is not useful in treating cadmium poisoning. To date, no treatment has been proven effective for cadmium poisoning. Thallium poisoning is treated with a combination of Prussian blue (potassium ferric hexacyanoferrate) and a diuretic, because about 35% of it is excreted in the urine; however, if treatment is not started within 72 hours of ingesting the poisoning, damage to the patient's nervous system may be permanent.
In cases of acute mercury, arsenic, or thallium ingestion, vomiting may be induced. Activated charcoal may be given in cases of thallium poisoning. Washing out the stomach (gastric lavage) may also be useful. The patient may also require treatment such as intravenous fluids for such complications of poisoning as shock, anemia, and kidney failure.
Patients who have taken arsenic, thallium, or mercury in a suicide attempt will be seen by a psychiatrist as part of emergency treatment.


The chelation process can only halt further effects of the poisoning; it cannot reverse neurological damage already sustained.


Because arsenic and thallium were commonly used in rat and insect poisons at one time, many countries have tried to lower the rate of accidental poisonings by banning the use of heavy metals in pest control products. Thallium was banned in the United States as a rodent poison in 1984. As a result, almost all recent cases of arsenic and thallium poisoning in the United States were deliberate rather than accidental.
Because exposure to heavy metals is often an occupational hazard, protective clothing and respirators should be provided and worn on the job. Protective clothing should then be left at the work site and not worn home, where it could carry toxic dust to family members. Industries are urged to reduce or replace the heavy metals in their processes wherever possible. Exposure to environmental sources of lead, including lead-based paints, plumbing fixtures, vehicle exhaust, and contaminated soil, should be reduced or eliminated.
People who use Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese herbal preparations as alternative treatments for various illnesses should purchase them only from reliable manufacturers.

Key terms

Alopecia — Loss of hair.
Chelation — The process by which a molecule encircles and binds to a metal and removes it from tissue.
Heavy metal — One of 23 chemical elements that has a specific gravity (a measure of density) at least five times that of water.
Prussian blue — The common name of potassium ferric hexacyanoferrate, a compound approved in the United States for treatment of thallium poisoning. Prussian blue gets its name from the fact that it was first used by artists in 1704 as a dark blue pigment for oil paints. It has also been used in laundry bluing and fabric printing.



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American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). 7272 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814. (301) 657-3000. http://www.ashp.org.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., NE, Atlanta, GA 30333. (800) 311-3435, (404) 639-3311. http://www.cdc.gov.
Food and Drug Administration. Office of Inquiry and Consumer Information. 5600 Fisher Lane, Room 12-A-40, Rockville, MD 20857. (301) 827-4420. http://www.fda.gov/fdahomepage.html.
National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Clearinghouse. EnviroHealth, 2605 Meridian Parkway, Suite 115, Durham, NC 27713. (919) 361-9408.


any chemical element marked by luster, malleability, ductility, and conductivity of electricity and heat, and which will ionize positively in solution. adj., adj metal´lic.
alkali metal one of a group of monovalent elements including lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, and cesium.
metal fume fever an occupational disorder with malaria-like symptoms occurring in those engaged in welding and other metallic operations and due to the volatilized metals. It includes brassfounder's fever (brass chill, brazier's chill) and spelter's fever (zinc chill, zinc fume fever).
heavy metal one with a high specific gravity, usually defined to be above 5.0.
heavy metal poisoning poisoning with any of the heavy metals, particularly antimony, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, thallium, or zinc.
noble metal a metal that is highly resistant to oxidation and corrosion.

heavy metal poisoning

poisoning caused by the ingestion, inhalation, or absorption of various toxic heavy metals. Kinds of heavy metal poisoning include antimony poisoning, arsenic poisoning, cadmium poisoning, lead poisoning, and mercury poisoning. See also heavy metal.

heavy metal poisoning

Poisoning due to ingestion, inhalation, or absorption of a heavy metal, esp. lead or mercury. Symptoms are determined by the type and duration of exposure and may include pulmonary, neurological, integumentary, or gastrointestinal disorders.
See also: poisoning
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