What Is Heavy Metal Poisoning?

Heavy metals, like arsenic, lead, mercury, and others, are all around us. They’re in the ground we walk on, in the water we drink, and in the products we use every day. But high levels of most heavy metals can make you sick.

True heavy metal poisoning is rare in the United States. And experts say you should be careful about unproven heavy metal tests or “detox” treatments you find online. They may waste your money, and some could be dangerous.

Heavy Metal Basics

Scientists group these elements based on their higher density, or atomic weights. Many heavy metals exist, including:

  • Arsenic
  • Cadmium
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Zinc

Not all of these metals are bad for you. We need small amounts of some of them, such as copper and iron, to keep our bodies healthy.

Who Gets Heavy Metal Poisoning?

This can happen if you eat or drink something tainted with heavy metals or if you breathe in contaminated dust or fumes.

You might get heavy metal poisoning if you:

  • Work in a factory that uses heavy metals
  • Breathe in old lead paint dust when you fix up your home
  • Eat fish caught in an area with high levels of mercury
  • Use herbal medicines that have heavy metals in them

Symptoms

The signs can vary depending on the metal and the amount.

Acute poisoning. This happens if you get a high dose at one time, like in a chemical accident in a factory or after a child swallows a toy made with lead. Symptoms usually come on quickly and you may:

  • Feel confused
  • Go numb
  • Feel sick and throw up
  • Pass out

Acute poisoning is an emergency. Call your doctor or local poison control center right away. The national Poison Help Line is 800-222-1222.

Chronic poisoning. You get this after contact with a low dose over a long time. As the metal builds up in your body, you can get sick. Symptoms come on slowly and can include:

Diagnosis

Different tests can check for different types of heavy metals. Some might test your blood or pee. Others might require an X-ray. Your doctor will also ask you about your job, hobbies, diet, and anything else that could have put you in contact with dangerous substances.

Tests for heavy metals aren’t routine. Your doctor would test you only if you show symptoms and there is a history of exposure or a good reason to suspect they are related to heavy metals.

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Treatments

The main step is to stay away from whatever made you sick so you don’t make the problem worse. Your doctor can help you figure out how to protect yourself.

Sometimes you might need to have your stomach pumped to get the metals out.

If your poisoning is serious, one treatment option is chelation. You get drugs, usually through an IV needle, that go into your blood and “stick” to the heavy metals in your body. They then get flushed out with your pee.

Chelation can be an important part of treatment. But the therapy can be dangerous, and it doesn’t work with all heavy metals. So doctors only use it only if you have high levels of the metal and clear symptoms of poisoning.

Unproven Tests and Treatments

Experts say that heavy metal poisoning is rare. But lots of websites claim it’s common and blame it, without proof, for all sorts of health problems. Many businesses sell unreliable tests and expensive or even dangerous treatments.


Hair analysis or chelation challenge tests (“provoked urine” tests). They’re inaccurate. They can’t tell you if you’re sick or need treatment.

Over-the-counter chelation treatments. These are not approved by the FDA, may not be safe, and there’s no evidence that they work.

If you think you have heavy metal poisoning, don’t try to diagnose it or treat it on your own. See your doctor instead.

Prevention

If you’re worried about heavy metal poisoning, your doctor can give you personalized advice. General tips include:

  • If you work with heavy metals, always wear masks or other safety equipment.
  • Check local fish advisories to make sure the fish you eat is safe.
  • If you live in a home built before 1978, hire an expert to test it for lead paint.
  • Check labels on products for heavy metals.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on January 09, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Oregon Public Health, Division Environmental Public Health: “Heavy metals and your

health: Frequently asked questions about testing, treatment and prevention.”

Consumer Reports: “Be Wary of Bogus Supplements for Lead Poisoning.”

FDA: “Questions and Answers on Unapproved Chelation Products.”

Medscape: “Heavy Metal Toxicity.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Heavy Metal Poisoning.”

UpToDate: “Lead Poisoning (The Basics).”

Poison Control, National Capital Poison Center: “Chelation: Therapy or ‘Therapy’?”

Environmental Protection Agency: “Protect Your Family from Exposures to Lead.”

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