The World Health Organization has a list of ten chemicals that are of concern to public health.
These chemicals can enter our bloodstream and cause severe damage to our health. Some of the chemicals on that list are heavy metals.
How can you find out if you have been exposed to heavy metals? How can you minimize your risk of exposure?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about heavy metal poisoning and heavy metal tests.
What Is Heavy Metal Poisoning?
Your body needs certain substances such as iron, copper, and zinc to stay healthy. However, if you accumulate too much of these substances in the body, it can lead to health problems.
We come into regular contact with many other metals that can accumulate in your body and cause issues.
If you have excessive exposure and a heavy metal builds up in your body in unhealthy quantities, it is classed as heavy metal poisoning.
Which Metals Are Considered Heavy Metals?
Many metals can accumulate in your soft tissue to cause heavy metal poisoning. These heavy metals include but aren't limited to:
Although many of these metals are uncommon in everyday life, there are instances when you can become exposed to unhealthy levels.
How Does Heavy Metal Exposure Occur?
Heavy metal toxicity can occur through exposure to heavy metals in your environment. This can be through food or drink, medications, or exposure to metals at work or home.
You can ingest the heavy metals through your food or drink. You can also breathe in dust from heavy metals if you work in a mine or industrial plant.
Some common causes of coming into contact with heavy metals include:
- Mining or prolonged exposure to industrial materials
- Exposure to toxic waste
- Drinking contaminated water
- Ingesting the pesticides used on crops
- Breathing in the fumes from lead paint
- Exposure to an improper coating on pans for cooking or containers for food storage
- Eating seafood from areas with high levels of mercury in the water
- Air pollution
What Are The Most Common Causes Of Heavy Metal Poisoning?
Toxic heavy metal poisoning is very rare. However, exposure to heavy metals can occur from things we do every day.
For example, arsenic can be ingested in food with dangerous pesticides levels on it.
Drinking water from contaminated lead pipes is another common way for heavy metals to enter our system. Lead paint used in older houses can be another source of exposure.
Eating contaminated seafood is another way we can contact dangerous levels of mercury, for example. A lot of tuna is known to have high levels of mercury.
Smoking exposes you to cadmium, as does shellfish and some vegetables. The production of certain plastics and batteries can also cause cadmium exposure.
Symptoms of Heavy Metal Poisoning
If you have come into prolonged contact with heavy metals, you may show some heavy metal toxicity symptoms.
These symptoms are different depending on the metal you have been overly exposed to.
The groups most affected by heavy metal exposure are pregnant women and children. It can be difficult to diagnose symptoms. If women have high levels of exposure to heavy metals during pregnancy, it can lead to miscarriage or abnormalities with the fetus.
Other common symptoms of heavy metal poisoning include:
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Memory loss
- Impaired vision
- Mood disorders
There are more specific symptoms depending on the metal you have been exposed to. Here are some symptoms for the more common types of poisoning:
If an individual has been exposed to mercury in excess amounts, they may feel tightness in their chest and have problems with breathing, including coughing.
They may also experience neurological effects such as memory loss, behavior change, and poor concentration. In extreme circumstances, overexposure to mercury could cause personality disorders.
Excessive exposure to arsenic can cause headaches, tiredness, and skin problems such as rashes. It may also cause problems with the stomach, such as diarrhea.
The symptoms take several weeks to show if someone has been poisoned with arsenic. If the poisoning is severe, the person may also suffer from fever and chills.
Lead poisoning can reduce the number of red blood cells in the body, which can cause anemia and pale skin.
Other symptoms of lead poisoning include vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, abdominal pain, and even seizures.
Exposure to excessive cadmium can cause headaches, tiredness, fever, and vomiting. It can also cause abnormal function of the liver and kidneys, which can cause high protein levels in urine.
Phosphorus can cause twitching and muscle weakness. Other indications of phosphorus poisoning include headaches, nausea, and vomiting.
Long-term Effects of Heavy Metals
The long-term impacts of heavy metal exposure can be more severe. Heavy metals in the body can cause kidney damage, lung damage, organ failure, Alzheimer's disease, and many different cancers.
The complications caused by heavy metals depend on the length of exposure you have had to them.
Different heavy metals cause varied complications with the body. For example, lead poisoning can cause issues with reproduction and blood pressure.
Mercury poisoning can cause issues with vision, skin issues, lung damage, and brain damage.
If you have long-term exposure to cadmium, it can cause problems with your kidneys or lungs.
Arsenic poisoning can cause cancer, as well as problems with neurological function.
Heavy Metal Tests
One of the easiest ways to find out if you have heavy metals in your system is heavy metal testing.
You can test for different types of heavy metal with blood tests, urine tests, or hair and nail tests.
The types of heavy metals that can be detected will depend on the type of test you choose.
A heavy metals panel is used to detect and measure the level of different types of heavy metals in the body. Tests like these are usually conducted using urine or blood. However, the lab may use hair, fluid, or body tissue, depending on the purpose of the test. Most labs have a variety of heavy metal panels available, each designed to test for different types of metal. Some of the metals that are commonly tested for include:
Other metals that are frequently tested for using panels like these include zinc, copper, and cadmium. A qualified healthcare provider determines which test to order, typically basing the decision on their patient's symptoms or the likelihood of exposure to certain types of metal.
The phrase "heavy metals" describes metallic or dense elements in the periodic table. Elements like these occur naturally throughout the world and are also used when manufacturing many different types of products. The body requires small amounts of certain heavy metals. Examples of metals beneficial in trace amounts include copper, zinc, iron, selenium, and molybdenum. While these elements are helpful at extremely low levels, they can be harmful at higher concentrations.
When the body contains too much of any heavy metal, it can cause damage or irritation. Heavy metals also can contribute to environmental contamination, affecting everything from the air and soil to water and food. Once these metals enter the environment, they usually remain there forever. Since elements like these can cause harm, they are sometimes referred to as "toxic metals."
Different types of metal can cause various symptoms. The symptoms a patient experiences can also vary based on the concentration of the metal, the amount of time they were exposed to it, how they were exposed, how old they are, and their overall level of health. Certain metals pose a greater risk than others. Different types of the same metal may also vary in terms of how toxic they are. For instance, an inorganic metal compound may be more or less harmful than its organic counterpart.
The method of exposure affects how much of the metal is absorbed by the body and which parts of the body are impacted. For instance, a metal that is harmless when touched or swallowed could be severely damaging to the lungs if it is inhaled.
Acute heavy metal exposure can damage the body, sometimes even causing death. The human body is capable of processing relatively low amounts of heavy metals. Exposure to higher concentrations of these metals, however, can cause them to build up in the liver, kidneys, brain, or skeletal system. Even low levels of exposure should be carefully tracked to monitor for any potential problems.
Exposure to certain metals may lead to a greater likelihood of getting cancer. Other metals impact the production of both white and red blood cells. Babies who are still in the womb and small children are most likely to develop problems when exposed to heavy metals, even at relatively low concentrations. Exposure to these metals can impact the mental and physical development of the child, causing irreversible damage to the brain and other organs in the body. Heavy metals can be transferred to developing fetuses from the mother. In some cases, infants can also be exposed through breastmilk.
How Should You Prepare For The Test?
During the 48 hours leading up to the test, avoid eating fish or other types of seafood. Wait a minimum of 96 hours before collecting a sample if you have undergone a medical procedure that used contrast media containing either iodine or gadolinium.
Heavy metal panels are used to determine the concentration of toxic metals in people who have been exposed to potentially harmful metals. Tests like these are also used to track heavy metal concentrations in workers who are regularly exposed to toxic metals. Examples of jobs where this type of testing may be necessary include mining, carpentry, radiator repair, and gun ranges. A special treatment known as chelation therapy is used to lower the concentration of heavy metals in the body. Heavy metal panels are used to track how effectively the treatment is working.
A typical heavy metal panel includes several tests, each designed to look for different metals. Typically, the tests are grouped based on whether they are measured through blood or urine. A doctor or healthcare provider chooses the heavy metal panel based on the type of exposure their patient experienced or the symptoms that they are demonstrating. The most common metals included in panels like these are:
When the healthcare provider believes that the patient has been exposed to a specific type of metal, they may order an individual test for that type of metal. The test for lead exposure, for instance, is usually run on its own. This is particularly true when testing children since they are at a higher risk of developing problems due to lead exposure. Tests involving fingernails, hair, fluids, or tissues of the body are typically ordered on their own rather than as part of a panel, as well.
What Are Some Common Situations Where Heavy Metals Panels Are Ordered?
If a medical provider believes that one of their patients has been exposed to heavy metals, they will typically order a heavy metals panel. Exposure to heavy metals can also cause symptoms, varying in type and severity based on the kind of metal and the concentration of the exposure. Early on, the symptoms of heavy metal exposure are easy to overlook since they aren't very specific. Unfortunately, organ damage can occur even if a patient isn't displaying any distinct symptoms. Signs to watch for that could indicate heavy metal poisoning include the following:
- Pain in the abdomen
- Diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
- Problems involving the nervous system, including weakness, tingling, or numbness in the extremities.
- Kidney or liver damage
- Fluid in the lungs
- Lung irritation
- Memory problems or other cognitive issues
- Horizontal lines on the fingernails, which are known as Mees lines
- Behavioral changes
- Weak or deformed bones in young children
- Miscarriage or early labor in women who are pregnant
Typically, workers who come in contact with heavy metals on the job undergo routine monitoring. There are also safety protocols in place that are designed to reduce the risk of metal exposure for employees. Many heavy metals that are used in work-related applications are regulated and monitored by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Anytime levels of these metals climb too high, steps are taken to reduce employee exposure levels and to monitor their systems for problems.
What Other Information Should I Know About Heavy Metals?
Everyone's body processes heavy metals differently. The rate at which the metals are absorbed and eliminated can vary from one person to another. That means that two people exposed to the same type and amount of a particular heavy metal may not experience the same symptoms. People who have existing problems with their health may have an increased risk of suffering ill effects from heavy metal exposure.
Trace levels of heavy metals are carefully tracked. Steps are taken to keep exposure to these metals to a minimum. Despite that, avoiding heavy metals completely is unfeasible. For example, arsenic occurs naturally in drinking water in certain areas. Thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs contain low levels of mercury. Anytime these items break, the mercury can potentially find its way into the environment. Bacteria found in water produce an organic type of mercury known as methylmercury. This mercury can accumulate in fish. The level of mercury concentration depends on where the fish are located and how large they are. Usually, old, large fish contain the most methylmercury. In general, the risk of consuming too much mercury is minimal, especially when compared to the health benefits of consuming fish. Pregnant women should be cautious when eating fish. According to the March of Dimes, pregnant women should not eat some types of fish until after they give birth. This reduces the risk of mercury harming their unborn child.
At one time, lead was commonly used in household plumbing, paint, and gasoline. While this type of environmental lead exposure is declining, old homes and buildings can still have high lead levels in their plumbing and paint. In 2015, Flint, Michigan, failed to keep lead from contaminating the water when they changed their water source. Switching from getting their water from Detroit to getting it from the Flint River without preventing corrosion leads to significant problems for the residents. As the river water made its way through the pipes, it corroded them, causing lead to finding its way into the local water supply, making it dangerous to drink.
Over time, as house paint breaks down, the paint dust and chips can contaminate the soil around the building. Young children have the greatest risk of developing health problems due to exposure to lead. Children may put their mouths on painted surfaces or consume paint chips. When playing, they may inadvertently be exposed to contaminated soil or breathe in dust that contains lead.
Lead isn't the only heavy metal that can pose a problem. Cadmium and arsenic contamination have also been found on jewelry and toys in the past.
Three government agencies are responsible for monitoring heavy metal sources in the environment, including water, air, and food supply. These agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The EPA is responsible for regulating emissions, establishing upper exposure limits for heavy metals, and tracking how heavy metal exposure affects the population. The FDA is tasked with controlling toxic metals in food. The CDC advises parents to test their children for exposure to lead, particularly if they spend a lot of time in houses or buildings constructed before 1978.
When you take a blood test, your doctor will be able to check for healthy levels of lead, mercury, and arsenic. Blood tests tend to be the most common type of test for heavy metals.
Urine tests are better for metals that accumulate in the body over the years, such as cadmium and creatinine.
How Should You Prepare For a Heavy Metals Test?
Before you take a test for heavy metals, you should avoid seafood for at least 48 hours prior.
You should note all your potential exposure to heavy metals to share with your physician. This includes potential exposure to harmful dust particles at work or home.
You will also need to share lifestyle details such as your diet and whether or not you smoke.
What If My Heavy Metal Test Comes Back Abnormal?
If you have results that show you have high levels of certain metals, it doesn't need to be a cause for worry.
High levels of heavy metals in your system don't necessarily mean you have developed any diseases associated with heavy metal exposure.
It's a positive thing; you now know which metals you have in your system and can work on preventing any further exposure to that metal.
Order Your Heavy Metals Test With Ulta Lab Tests
If you are concerned about any heavy metal exposure, the best way to determine if you're experiencing heavy metal poisoning is with lab tests from Ulta Lab Tests.
The tests are easy to book online, and you can choose which type of test you require. The next step is to visit a nearby patient service center to have your blood drawn.
Once your sample has been analyzed, your results will appear online with detailed information about interpreting them.
As the results are documented online, you can track your results over time and compare them with new tests you order later. This system also makes it easy to share the results with your healthcare provider. They will be able to help you address any concerns you may have.
Take control of your health today.