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Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD)

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Heavy metal poisoning

Other Names for this Disease
  • Chronic heavy metal poisoning
  • Heavy Metal Toxicity
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Your Question

I am looking for any info about heavy metal toxicity, symptoms, treatment, outcomes.  Especially combined toxicity (e.g., nickle and mercury).  Also looking for diagnostic tools available for heavy metal in humans.

Our Answer

We have identified the following information that we hope you find helpful. If you still have questions, please contact us.

What is heavy metal poisoning?

Heavy metal poisoning refers to an overexposure to lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium or other high density or metallic element that causes irritation or damage to the body. Heavy metals can be found naturally in the environment, in homes, or at the work place. Sudden severe exposures as well as moderate exposures over time can cause toxicity. Depending on the exposure, metals can increase cancer risk, impair production of red and white blood cells, and affect physical and mental health.[1]
Last updated: 2/8/2013

What are the signs and symptoms of heavy metal poisoning?

Signs and symptoms of heavy metal poisoning will vary depending on the type, length, and amount of exposure, as well as the age and general state of health of the individual exposed.[1] Fetuses and young children are at the highest risk for severe and long term health consequences from heavy metal exposure.[1] Early signs and symptoms of heavy metal poisoning often go unrecognized. Some signs and symptoms of metal poisoning may include:[1]

Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Nervous system symptoms (e.g., numbness, tingling of hands and feet, and weakness)
Kidney damage
Liver damage 
Lung irritation and edema
Brain dysfunction (e.g., memory loss)
Behavior changes
Weakened or malformed bones 
Pregnancy loss or preterm labor

Last updated: 2/8/2013

How is heavy metal poisoning diagnosed?

Heavy metal poisoning can be diagnosed through urine and blood tests. Hair and fingernail analysis can help diagnosis past exposure, but will not detect recent exposures. Testing is available in panels (where multiple exposures are tested) or by individual element.[1] Your doctor will advise you regarding the most appropriate tests. Some of the metals that are more commonly tested include lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium.[1] Less commonly ordered tests include aluminum, beryllium, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, nickel, platinum, selenium, silicon, silver, and thallium.[1]

For further information on testing for heavy metal poisoning, visit the following link to Lab Tests Online, a Web site developed by the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science.

Last updated: 2/8/2013