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You’re a conscious shopper. 

You try to eat organic and opt for the most natural options as much as possible.

You’re always looking out for the healthiest options for your personal care and household products.

And you may have heard that “biobased” materials (aka derived from the earth and living things) are good for you. For example, that packaging made out of recycled cornmeal is better for you and the environment.

On the other hand, things that are made of “synthetic” materials (aka materials people make out of chemicals) are harmful – like your plastic water bottle, shampoo ingredients, and maybe even your cookware.

But did you know that sometimes things from nature can be harmful too?

Some of the chemicals that are harmful but come directly from the Earth’s crust are heavy metals. They can enter your body through water, food, and air–thus ingestion, breathing, and direct contact are ways you can be exposed. 

Heavy metals are chemicals that can be toxic at low concentrations. The two most common and toxic heavy metals are lead and mercury. While it’s impossible to eliminate them completely from the environment, it’s important to understand:

  • How you can get exposed to heavy metals
  • What symptoms may pop up when you have heavy metal toxicity

In this blog, I’ll explore what heavy metals are, how you can be exposed to them, and the symptoms you may experience from heavy metals you’re exposed to on a daily basis.

What Are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals are natural elements that have a high density and atomic weight (hence the “heavy”). They’re used in many applications including the agricultural, medical, technological, and industrial fields. 

Heavy metals are used in areas such as refineries, mining, and paper processing plants where they’re released into the environment. This environmental contamination causes health concerns because heavy metals can enter through several routes when humans are exposed, including air, water, food and products. Some heavy metals are also probable or known carcinogens.

There are 15 different types of heavy metals that I commonly see my patients exposed to. They are:

  • Mercury
  • Lead
  • Thallium
  • Cadmium
  • Gadolinium
  • Barium
  • Aluminum
  • Tin
  • Uranium
  • Platinum
  • Nickel
  • Tungsten
  • Arsenic
  • Rubidium
  • Cesium

Before exploring the symptoms that come from exposure to these heavy metals, let’s look at how you may be exposed in the first place.

How Can You Be Exposed to Heavy Metals?

In the previous section, you learned that employees who work with materials in refineries and similar environments can be exposed to heavy metals. While most people don’t work in these environments, many of the items made in refineries (i.e., batteries, paints, and cookware for example) are found in our homes, offices, gyms, and places we commonly visit, and can make it into our food and water supply.

Here are places you can be exposed to heavy metals and which heavy metals you may come in contact with.

1. Indoor Environments

You spend the majority of your time indoors. Here are some items that you come in contact with regularly and the heavy metals present in them.

  • Toys: Lead
  • Solders: Lead
  • Jewelry: Nickel
  • Television tubes: Tungsten
  • Ceramics: Lead, uranium, nickel
  • Pigments and Paints: Lead, thallium
  • Batteries: Cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel
  • Coffee pots, cookware, and flatware: Aluminum, tin
  • Glass: Nickel, uranium (ancient or antique, yellow-colored glassware)
  • Photoelectric components: Thallium (photoelectric cells and infrared detectors) 
  • Electrochemical and electronic components: Thallium (semiconductors and switches)
  • Old Paint: lead

2. Outdoor Environments

You can also be exposed to heavy metals outdoors. Here are materials and areas to be aware of. 

  • Bullets: Lead
  • Alloying: Lead
  • Leaded fuels: Lead
  • Fishing sinkers: Lead
  • Diesel exhaust: Nickel
  • Glue or lubricants: Tungsten
  • Fungicides and pesticides: Mercury
  • Automobile exhaust converters: Platinum
  • Antiknock compounds added to fuels: Lead
  • Waterproof and fireproof materials: Tungsten
  • Second-hand smoke from cigarettes: Cadmium
  • Soils, plants, vegetables, and animal products: Rubidium 

3. Medical and Pharmaceutical Fields

Medical materials and pharmaceuticals that you consume internally may have heavy metals. Medical treatments may also contain heavy metals. Here are some to be concerned about.

  • Dental materials: Platinum (previously mercury amalgams)
  • Chemotherapy drugs: Platinum
  • Ayurvedic herbs: Lead, mercury
  • Orthopedic materials: Platinum and titanium
  • Vaccinations and medications: Mercury
  • Radiation therapy for cancers: Cesium
  • Aluminum hydroxide antacid formulas: Aluminum
  • Dental amalgams: Mercury (about 50% by weight mercury)
  • Medical imaging studies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Gadolinium
  • Diagnostic medical testing: Barium (Barium swallow test, upper gastrointestinal series, barium enema), cesium

4. Food and Beverages

Food and water are essential to our survival. Because of this, it’s likely that you have consumed something that contains heavy metals. Here are some examples.

  • Rice: Arsenic
  • Cocoa: Nickel
  • Coffee: Nickel
  • Beef: Rubidium
  • Chicken: Arsenic
  • Chocolate: Nickel
  • Tomatoes: Rubidium
  • Soda cans: Aluminum
  • Seaweed: Mercury, barium
  • Hydrogenated oils: Nickel
  • Soy: Cadmium, nickel, arsenic, rubidium
  • Seafood: Mercury, barium, arsenic, cesium
  • Vegetables and fruits grown in non-organic soil: Cadmium
  • Nut: Barium (ground nuts such as Brazil nuts and peanuts), nickel
  • Water: Arsenic, lead, thallium (can have almost every metal when contaminated)

5. Industrial Environments

If you’re working in the industry, you may spend the majority of your time in contact with equipment or in environments that contain heavy metals. Here are a few examples.

  • Mining: Tungsten
  • Arc welding: Nickel
  • Paper industry: Mercury
  • Electric lamps: Tungsten
  • Electron tubes: Tungsten
  • Metal-working: Tungsten
  • Chemical plumes: Thallium
  • Smelting: Lead, thallium
  • Coal-fired power plants: Mercury
  • Petroleum industries: Tungsten, cesium
  • Thermometers, barometers, and lab equipment: Mercury
  • Colored glass and synthetic gem manufacturing: Thallium
  • Emissions from hospital and municipal incinerators: Mercury
  • Industrial catalysts (a chemical that’s used to speed up a chemical reaction to make everyday products like polymers): Thallium

6. Personal Care Products

In addition to food and beverages, you also apply personal care products to your body on a daily basis. Here are two examples of categories of products that may contain aluminum.  Personal care products can contain a variety of other non-metal toxins as well. 

  • Deodorants: Aluminum
  • Makeup and cosmetics: Aluminum

Now that you know how you may be exposed to heavy metals, it’s important to understand the root cause of your symptoms. You’ll find a list of the 15 common heavy metals and the symptoms you can experience if you’re exposed to them next.

What Are the Symptoms of Heavy Metal Exposure and Toxicity?

Below is a list of 15 heavy metals mentioned above. To get to the root cause of your symptoms, it’s important to understand which heavy metal you may have been exposed to.

1. Lead 

Lead is a heavy metal that can be toxic to humans and animals. Unfortunately, it’s found in the environment including the air, soil, and water. Here are symptoms you may experience if you were exposed to lead.

Short-term lead exposure can cause:

  • Headaches
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia and depression
  • Metallic taste in your mouth

Long-term high dose lead exposure can cause: 

  • Tremors
  • Memory loss
  • Kidney damage
  • Impaired vitamin D metabolism
  • Problems in producing red blood cells
  • Bone remodeling which increases osteoporosis 
  • Neuropathy and encephalopathy (increased risk for ALS)

2. Mercury

Nope, not the planet – the heavy metal. 

Mercury is a heavy metal that you could be exposed to from things already in your mouth such as old dental amalgams

Once in the air, mercury settles in bodies of water such as lakes and streams. Waterborne microorganisms can change it into methylmercury which builds up in fish and shellfish. 

Here are symptoms you may have been exposed to mercury.

Early signs of mercury exposure include:

  • Increased salivation
  • Metallic taste in your mouth
  • Fatigue or lack of physical endurance
  • Decreased senses of touch, hearing, vision, and taste

Later signs of mercury exposure that can come up with moderate or chronic mercury exposure include:

  • Headaches
  • Anorexia
  • Brain fog
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Irritability and excitability
  • Numbness and paresthesias
  • Immune suppression or dysregulation 
  • Thyroid dysregulation
  • Insulin Resistance 

3. Thallium

Thallium is a blue-white metal that turns grey when exposed to air. It’s highly toxic and is known as a systemic agent by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Systemic agents are compounds that travel through the bloodstream and eventually affect cells throughout your body.

Short-term acute exposure symptoms to thallium may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Mental confusion
  • Peripheral neurological signs like tremors, myalgias, and paresthesias

Chronic exposure may lead to:

  • Tremors
  • Hair loss
  • Weight loss
  • Memory loss
  • Eye changes
  • Ataxia (difficulty with balance)
  • Proteinuria (albumin or protein in your urine – which isn’t normal)

4. Cadmium

Cadmium is a by-product of the production of other metals like copper, lead, and zinc. Cadmium became important because of its use in producing nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries.

Symptoms that you were exposed to cadmium may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Tremors
  • Brain fog
  • Joint pain
  • Metallic taste
  • High blood pressure

5. Gadolinium

Gadolinium received a lot of attention in the radiology field. This is because gadolinium was found in the brain tissue of patients who underwent an MRI procedure. Studies are ongoing to determine how harmful this heavy metal is.  Unfortunately, currently it is the only method of doing contrast with MRI studies, which can provide valuable clinical information. 

Side effects include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching or rash formation
  • Headache
  • Burning, tingling, or prickling feeling on the skin

6. Barium

Barium is a heavy metal commonly used in the medical field. For example, a barium swallow test is an imaging test that doctors use to see your upper gastrointestinal tract (mouth, throat, and esophagus). Barium and X-rays are used to diagnose conditions like cancer, structural problems, enlarged veins, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and ulcers.  There are also barium enema studies. 

Barium is also found in industry such as shale gas development.

If you’ve been exposed to high amounts of barium, this could lead to interference with calcium metabolism (taking calcium and turning it into usable energy in the body) and potassium retention (your body needs calcium for healthy cells and processes).

Chronic exposure from barium may lead to:

  • Muscular and myocardial stimulation
  • Tingling in your arms and feet
  • Decreased tendon reflexes

7. Aluminum

Aluminum has a lower density than other metals and has a strong affinity for oxygen. It’s also the second-most abundant metal in the earth’s crust (right behind silicon). From construction materials to cooking with aluminum foil, you’ll come in contact with it regularly.

While it can be rarely acutely toxic, it’s important to recognize signs if you’re overexposed to it.

Symptoms of aluminum exposure that affect your neurological system include:

  • Brain fog
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Speech problems
  • Brain diseases and disorders

Your body can also experience joint pain and muscle weakness if you’re exposed to a high amount of aluminum.

8. Tin

Tin is a soft, bluish-silver metal that’s commonly used for your food containers and in solder. It can also leach out of printed circuit boards (PCBs)and electronic equipment. This is why it’s very important to dispose of PCBs safely to prevent contaminating our environment when it leeches.  

Toxic tin compounds can be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. Other forms of tin may cause skin and eye irritation.

Other signs you’ve been exposed to high levels of tin include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Anemia
  • Liver damage
  • Lung irritation

9. Uranium

Uranium is found in rocks and seawater. Uranium can be used to make nuclear fuel.

Scientists are concerned about uranium because it can migrate from waste repositories and contaminated environments into our water and soil.

Symptoms of uranium toxicity include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nephrotoxicity (kidney damage)

Ingesting a large amount of uranium may cause bone or liver cancer. Inhaling a large concentration of uranium may cause lung cancer.

10. Platinum

Platinum is a transition metal that’s highly resistant to corrosion in its bulk form. It’s commonly used in jewelry, dental alloys, circuits, and even chemotherapy drugs like cisplatin. The toxicity of platinum is determined by the type of platinum someone comes in contact with, the route of exposure, and how long someone is exposed for.

Platinum toxicity can cause

  • Dermatitis
  • Immunosuppression
  • Mucous membrane irritation
  • Nephrotoxicity (kidney damage)
  • Dyspnea and wheezing (if inhaled)
  • Neurotoxicity (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Ototoxicity (damage to the ears and hearing)
  • Chronic allergic reactions development (aka platinosis) 

11. Nickel

Nickel is a hard, ductile, transition metal that’s found in the environment such as in the water, soil, and air. Even though it’s a ubiquitous element, it can cause side effects on human health. For example, just like platinum, nickel is commonly used in jewelry. Unfortunately, it can cause allergic reactions for some when the nickel jewelry touches the skin.

This causes allergic contact dermatitis – an itchy rash that appears where your skin touches a usually harmless substance.

At an extremely high level, nickel may cause:

  • Proteinuria (protein in the urine, which can lead to kidney damage)
  • Hyperaminoaciduria (high levels of ammonia buildup that can cause brain damage, coma, and possibly death)

12. Tungsten

Tungsten is also known as wolfram and has the highest melting point of all metals. It’s used in many applications and products like welding, X-ray tubes, and drilling tools. 

Tungsten can enter your body through your lungs and cause a lung disease called pneumoconiosis – aka hard metal lung disease. It may also cause lung cancer.

If you’re exposed to tungsten on your skin for an extended period of time, you may get:

  • Eczema
  • Pruritus (itching)
  • Folliculitis
  • Neurodermatitis

13. Arsenic

There are two forms of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Arsenic is commonly found in our foods such as rice and fish. It’s also found in pesticides, wood preservatives, and drinking water

Symptoms of arsenic exposure include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of feeling
  • Rashes on your hands and feet

Arsenic is also a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and is associated with lung, bladder, kidney, liver, and skin cancers. It can also contribute to diabetes, gout, and metabolic syndrome.

14. Rubidium

Ever seen purple fireworks in the sky? You may be looking at a form of rubidium! It’s a soft metal that’s highly reactive with water and very flammable. 

Rubidium is moderately toxic and may pose an acute health hazard if ingested in large quantities.

If you’ve been exposed to rubidium, you may experience:

  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Kidney damage
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Respiratory tract inflammation
  • Proteinuria (protein in the urine)

15. Cesium

Last but not least, there’s cesium! Cesium is commonly used in spectrometers, photoelectric cells, and catalysts in many industries. It’s highly reactive, especially with oxygen and water. Exposure to cesium is commonly from contaminated water and/or seafood. 

Just like rubidium, cesium is moderately toxic and an acute health hazard if ingested in large amounts.

Symptoms of cesium exposure include:

  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms)
  • Low potassium
  • Altered lipid metabolism
  • Central and peripheral nervous systems

Are You Concerned You’ve Been Exposed to Heavy Metals? 

Woah, what a long list of heavy metals! 

This list isn’t supposed to scare you, it’s meant to be a guide to some of the most common heavy metals in our environment. I want you to be able to get down to the root cause of your symptoms, which may be caused by heavy metal toxicity.

If you think you’re experiencing heavy metal symptoms, contact us at Arizona Wellness Medicine here.

Interested in learning about testing and treatment for heavy metals? Check out part II of this series here.

Here’s to your health,

Dr. Emily

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke, D.O., is a certified functional medicine doctor, board-certified in anesthesiology & pediatric anesthesiology, and trained in medical acupuncture. She’s an experienced speaker in the medical and functional medicine community, and presently gives talks on a wide array of subjects.

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