What Is Heavy Metal Poisoning?
Heavy metal poisoning can happen when you’re exposed to a lot of certain types of metals. It makes you sick and affects the way your body works.
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 cause health problems.
The poisoning can happen if you eat or drink something tainted with heavy metals or if you breathe in contaminated dust or fumes.
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.
There are many heavy metals, including:
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.
Heavy Metal Poisoning Causes and Risk Factors
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
- Use dinnerware that hasn’t been coated well enough to prevent heavy metals from contaminating food
- Drink water contaminated with heavy metal.
Heavy Metal Poisoning 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
You may also have:
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:
Drinking water with lead in it can lead to cognitive problems and slower development in kids. Infants who drink formula mixed with tap water are at especially high risk if their drinking water is contaminated.
Lead has been banned from plumbing for years, but it still gets into the water supply from old lines. Some water filters will remove it from your water, but if you’re concerned about the level of lead in your drinking supply, you can request a water test.
Heavy Metal Poisoning Diagnosis
Different tests can check for different types of heavy metals. Some might test your blood or pee. Others might require an X-ray. These tests can help your doctor decide if you have heavy metal poisoning, how severe it is, and which heavy metals are involved. They include:
- CBC (complete blood count)
- Kidney function tests
- Urine analysis for proteins
- Liver function tests
- Imaging tests (abdominal radiographs)
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.
Heavy Metal Poisoning Treatments and Home Care
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 use it only if you have high levels of the metal and clear symptoms of poisoning.
Unproven Tests and Treatments for Heavy Metal Poisoning
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.
Heavy Metal Poisoning 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 a mask 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 and, if found, to do lead abatement.
- Check labels on products for heavy metals.