Heavy metals – defined as metals with high density and atomic weights – are generally harmless in small quantities. In fact, some heavy metals, such as iron and zinc, are essential nutrients necessary for life. However, these and other heavy metals become incredibly toxic in large quantities. Some heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, are highly poisonous, causing sickness and death in those who are exposed for a significant amount of time.
With this in mind, those who may have been exposed to large quantities of heavy metals should take the matter seriously. But how do you know if you’ve been exposed? Here are five common ways people are exposed to heavy metals:
Contaminated food and water
Many types of seafood contain large quantities of mercury. Arsenic is frequently detected in rice and other grains grown in contaminated soil. Meanwhile, tap water fed through lead pipes can become contaminated with lead if corrosion inhibitors are not applied.
Industrial activities like mining, smelting, and refining metals can release heavy metals into the environment. These heavy metals can accumulate in the air, water, and soil.
Though unlikely, it’s possible to be exposed to dangerous levels of heavy metals through common consumer products. Examples include batteries, paint, and certain electronic devices.
Certain medical treatments, like chemotherapy and some traditional medicines, can contain heavy metals like arsenic and mercury. However, if administered by licensed medical professionals, such exposure can be managed with the use of drugs and careful monitoring.
Contaminated dust and soil
Heavy metals like lead and arsenic can be present in soil and dust, particularly in areas near industrial facilities or in older buildings with lead-based paint.
Here’s what to do if you believe you’ve been exposed to dangerous levels of heavy metals:
Remove yourself from the source
It goes without saying that your first move should be to get as far from the potential source as possible. Even if it means leaving your home, the risks are far too great to linger around.
Seek medical attention
The next step is to seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you feel nauseous or otherwise unwell, go to the nearest emergency room or urgent care clinic. However, if you lack any noticeable symptoms, waiting to see your primary care physician at the next available time is probably safe.
Take an at-home heavy metals test
If you’re days away from your doctor’s appointment, consider taking an at-home test for heavy metals. A heavy metals urine test can be used to measure levels of six toxic substances: arsenic, bromine, cadmium, iodine, mercury, and selenium. These tests are reviewed and approved by an independent board-certified physician.
Reduce future exposure
Steps must be taken to reduce any additional exposure. It might be difficult or seemingly impossible to do so, but if your health is at risk, any amount of inconvenience is better than the alternative.
Now let’s take a look at six health risks associated with exposure to large quantities of heavy metals:
Exposure to lead and cadmium can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
Heavy metals can damage the kidneys, leading to renal failure and other kidney-related problems.
Exposure to certain heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, can cause respiratory problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Heavy metals can accumulate in the brain and nervous system, causing neurological damage, including developmental delays, cognitive impairment, and behavioral changes
Exposure to heavy metals can cause reproductive problems, including infertility and decreased sperm count.
Certain heavy metals, such as arsenic and chromium, are known or suspected carcinogens, increasing the risk of cancer development. Types of cancer associated with heavy metals exposure include glioblastoma, lymphoma, and lung cancer.
It’s worth noting that the health risks associated with exposure to heavy metals depend on the length of exposure, the quantity of the substance, a person’s age, and overall health.
If you think you or someone you know has been exposed to dangerous levels of heavy metals, there’s no time to waste. Action must be taken sooner rather than later. Your health – and potentially your life – depends on it.
Melanie Grealish is a freelance writer from Chicago. She enjoys writing about industry, science, and technology.