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Heavy Metal Testing and Heavy Metals Toxicity - The Hidden Risks Among Us

Medically Reviewed by

What are heavy metals?

Humans and animals get exposed to heavy metals through inhalation, skin absorption, and diet. 

Heavy metals get trapped in the soil, groundwater, plant life, and vegetation. 

Since Toxic metals are difficult to metabolize, they accumulate in the bones, liver, kidneys, and heart of humans.  

In fact, Heavy metals are everywhere!

Toxins released into the environment come from many sources:

  •  Manufacturing;
  • Agricultural production;
  • Automobile emissions;
  • Mining;
  • Treated surfaces such as wood and plastics.

Humans face significant exposure to heavy metals, which can be present in fertilizers and pesticides, as well as food stabilizers.

Moreover, exposure extends beyond food sources; cigarette smoke, volcanic emissions, industrial discharges from smelting operations, and even dental amalgams are also culprits.

These varied sources contribute to the pollution of our air, food, and water with heavy metals.

In the context of agricultural practices, heavy metals can seep into the water supply, affecting both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

This contamination leads to elevated levels of heavy metals in fish, rice, and leafy green vegetables, posing further health risks to humans and wildlife alike.

What are essential elements?

Essential elements play an important role in our overall health and well-being. 

These help mediate several biochemical processes such as metabolism and the transport of oxygen through the blood. 

They are considered essential because without them to facilitate many important functions, the body would break down and illness would occur.

Essential elements are necessary to:

  • Synthesize neurotransmitters
  • Activate specific hormones
  • Support nervous system
  • Produce hemoglobin
  • Support antioxidant enzymes
  • Support cellular metabolism
  • Facilitate replication and transcription of nucleic acids

If essential elements are not absorbed into the body within optimal ranges, they can be ineffective, unhealthy, and even toxic, just like heavy metals.  

The Importance of Heavy Metal Testing

What Is Measured?

Essential Elements and Heavy Metal tests measure levels of: 

Hg (Mercury), Cd (Cadmium), Pb (Lead), Zn (Zinc), Cu (Copper), Se (Selenium), Mg (Magnesium), I (Iodine), Br (Bromine), Li (Lithium), As (Arsenic), Crtn (Creatinine).  

Heavy Metal Testing Methods

According to the National Poisoning Data System (NPDS) of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), more than 8,000 Americans reported toxic exposure to heavy metals in 2019. [15]

Nearly 2500 of those were children under the age of six.

In fact, more than 4 million U.S. households alone contain lead where children are living and childhood exposure to lead and arsenic is high in other parts of the world overall.

Heavy metal testing or essential elements testing is fast and easy

The main testing methods are:

  • Dried urine: Dried urine tests involve using a urine sample applied to a filter card. After drying, it's analyzed for health assessments, offering a stable, innovative diagnostic approach.
  • Dried blood spot: Dried Blood Spot testing is a blood sample collection method where blood tests are conducted on blood blotted and dried on filter paper for easy shipment.

Urine testing and blood testing can be conveniently done with home testing kits for dried urine and dried blood spot tests.

These kits allow for the discreet collection of either urine or blood samples, based on the required element profile, from the comfort of one's home.

Samples are then sent back to the laboratory in a prepaid envelope for analysis. Test results are securely delivered via a patient portal within 3-5 days.

Risks of heavy metal poisoning

Heavy metal toxicity may cause an increased risk for:

  • Dementia
  • Infertility 
  • Diabetes  
  • Cancer 
  • Autoimmune disorders

May also cause damage to:

  • Liver 
  • Kidneys 
  • Brain 
  • Cardiovascular system 
  • Nervous system 
  • Endocrine system

How did I get exposed to Heavy Metals?

Workplace Toxicity—Occupational Exposure


Common sources of high exposure to arsenic include soil, rocks, and water in or near hazardous waste sites. 

High levels of arsenic can lead to death if exposure is too high. 


Beryllium exposure is most common in areas where extraction, mining, and processing of alloy metals takes place. 

Lung and skin conditions may result from beryllium exposure. 


Cadmium is among the most toxic of all heavy metals. This is most often found in the industrial workplace. 

Welders may be exposed to cadmium in solders and alloys that contain cadmium.

Hexavalent Chromium

Hexavalent Chromium may be found in the form of calcium chromate, chromium trioxide, lead chromate, strontium chromate, or zinc chromate. 

These elements cause cancer, especially in the lungs. 


Lead is responsible for the highest incidence of heavy metals overexposure.

Individuals who work at radiator shops, smelters, firing ranges, and construction work are most commonly exposed to lead.


Mercury is present in gold and silver mining operations, transport, and seafood. Overexposure to mercury can cause permanent nervous system damage and kidney disease.[4]

Heavy metals have existed universally for eons, their toxicity to humans unchanged over time. However, due to human activities, there's a significant increase in toxic heavy metals in the environment—air, soil, water, and vegetation—leading to symptoms of heavy metal exposure.

How do heavy metals cause damage?

Heavy metals accumulate in the body over time and begin to disrupt organs such as the heart, brain, and kidneys. 

Metals also replace other essential elements in the body necessary for natural biological function. 

These become depleted and interfere with overall health and wellness.[11]

Heavy metals enter the body through food, water, and skin exposure, and they can be defined as highly dense when compared to the density of water. 

Heavy metals are naturally present in the earth’s crust and natural exposure to metals has occurred through volcanic eruption and weathering. 

Leaching and erosion from heavy metals into the groundwater and soil can cause natural heavy metal poisoning. 

The majority of heavy metal overexposure and poisoning however involves industrial activity such as mining and metal fabrication.[12]

Metals are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. This is due in part to the natural elements in our environment. 

Industrial processes, manufacturing, and agricultural production create most of the heavy metal toxicity in humans and animals, however.

Who oversees our food for heavy metal contamination?

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) sets specific standards for foods and drugs and regularly tests for heavy metals in products for human consumption. [16]

Animal feed and cosmetics are also monitored for harmful levels of heavy metal toxins. 

Some foods are actually fortified with minerals such as iron, necessary to carry oxygen throughout the blood. 

Other heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury have no health benefits to humans.

Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are the metals most commonly found in the foods we eat and are the most toxic to children and their neurological development. 

The FDA evaluates hundreds of foods each year, measuring levels of about 400 contaminants.  According to administration data, no one food source is responsible for heavy metals exposure. 

Once significant levels of heavy metals are detected in food, however, efforts to improve growing conditions and production practices are made.[2]

Who’s At Risk?

The presence of heavy metal toxicity and its effects on human populations are based on:

  • Age
  • Type of metal
  • Amount of metal ingested
  • Developmental stage in life[1]

Although all populations are at risk for metal exposure, babies and young children under the age of 6 are the most vulnerable to toxic levels of heavy metals according to federal research. 

Depending on a child’s developmental stage biological connections may be damaged by heavy metal exposure. 

Reproductive Health and Chronic Heavy Metals Poisoning

Heavy metals exposure by the mother could possibly lead to, miscarriage, stillbirth, or birth defects.

A baby’s brain development can be adversely affected as well.  Heavy metals exposure can affect newborn babies if the mother is exposed to heavy metals and transfers toxicity through breast milk.[8] 

Environmental Testing

Testing for lead levels in the soil is important for a number of reasons. 

Though lead is harmful to both children and adults, the consequences of lead exposure are especially significant in children.

Lead may mimic other minerals necessary for the body including iron, calcium, and zinc.  Most of the time lead gets deposited in the bones interfering with red blood cell production. 

Lead also prevents calcium absorption necessary for bones, muscles, and blood vessel function.  Because children are still developing neurologically, lead poisoning is especially detrimental to them.

Lead exposure in children can result in learning disabilities, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), stunted growth, kidney damage, behavioral problems, and anemia.  Hearing impairment and stomach pain are also associated with lead exposure. [14]

Arsenic poisoning is pervasive throughout the world with an estimated several million people exposed due to toxic groundwater. [12] 

How do I know if I have been exposed to heavy metals?

A significant number of adults and children have encountered heavy metal exposure at varying degrees.

To assess the extent of potential exposure and the toxicity of specific metals, a heavy metal toxicity test, either through blood or urine, is conducted.

This test commonly evaluates for lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium levels, which are indicative of heavy metal exposure.

Additionally, it may check for copper, zinc, aluminum, and thallium to provide a comprehensive analysis of excessive exposure.

Acute vs. Chronic Exposure

What are the signs of acute heavy metal poisoning?

  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness
  • Coma[9]

Symptoms of chronic heavy metal poisoning include:

  • Nausea, abdominal discomfort
  • Diarrhea
  • Hands and feet tingling
  • Difficulty breathing     
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain

How is heavy metal toxicity treated?

Heavy metal toxicity is sometimes treated through chelation therapy.[6]

Chelation therapy involves the introduction of chelating agents that target parts of the body where metal toxicity has settled.

Chelating agents are compounds that bind metal ions to chelates that are then excreted from the body. 

These may be delivered in pill form, by IV, or through an injection. 

Before considering chelation therapy, you and your doctor should carefully weigh the benefits along with the side effects that accompany the treatment.[5]

What can I do to help avoid heavy metal toxicity?

One of the best ways to limit heavy metal exposure is to prevent it as much as possible.

This includes:

  • Removing shoes before entering the home to limit dirt and dust that may contain heavy metals.
  • Monitoring fish and seafood intake and following guidelines for intake involving mercury levels in fish.
  • Becoming familiar with possible sources of lead contamination and limiting toxic exposure.

Vegetables contain heavy metals due to contaminated groundwater and soil.    

The following vegetables are considered “low risk” for heavy metals contamination:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Beans
  • Zucchini

These are “moderate risk” vegetables:

  • Cucumbers
  • Melons

These vegetables pose the highest risk for heavy metal toxicity:

  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Onions
  • Collard greens
  • Swiss chard
  • Lettuce
  • Mint
  • Cilantro[10]

New Methods to Clean Up Soil and Water

Metals contamination often occurs at former mining, smelting, or industrial sites. 

These areas are typically spread out over several acres of land. 

Pollution, wind, and rain may carry heavy metals to other areas further contaminating the environment.  

Several remediation technologies exist to remove or reduce the harmful effects of metal contamination. 

Physical removal of contaminants through excavation, stabilization of contaminated soil with phosphates, and phytoremediation through the use of growing plants that help remove toxic metals from the soil can be used.[7]

Other efforts to remove toxic heavy metals from soil include Stanford University’s trial method of rinsing soil with water and applying chemicals to attract heavy metals.

As the mixture percolates through the soil the heavy metals are pulled loose. 

Once pulled through the soil, the toxins are put through an electrochemical filter that separates them from the water.[13]  

The University of California, San Diego has devised a way to detect heavy metals in drinking water by using bacteria.  Harmless strains of E.

coli are introduced to the water supply and can continuously be monitored for heavy metals. 

This works because bacterial genomes react to specific contaminants. Placed within an encased plastic chip and attached to the faucet, several heavy metals can be detected at once.[3]


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