We need metals. They are essential for a healthy body. But chronic exposure to some heavy metals can result in serious health problems and are a risk factor for mother and infant during pregnancy.
What are heavy metals in humans?
Small amounts of some metals are necessary for normal biological functions in humans. Metals important to our health include calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, sodium and zinc. Our need for some of these metals is so small that if you are eating a balanced diet your body will be getting them without you realising it.
But certain metals can be harmful if they are allowed to build up in your body. If your body’s tissues absorb too much mercury, lead, aluminium, cadmium, arsenic and nickel over a period of time the result can be serious health problems.
Who is exposed to heavy metals?
We are all, often unknowingly, exposed to heavy metals on a daily basis. Metals are present in air, water and soil pollution, contaminated seafood, pesticides, medicines, some cosmetics and hair dyes, coatings on some food containers, contaminated waste exposure, lead-based paints and old lead water pipes.
Certain professions involve regular exposure to higher concentrations of metals, including agriculture, medicine, mining, industry and construction.
Book an at-home blood test with Nabta Health to quickly understand whether you have high levels of heavy metals.
How do heavy metals enter our bodies?
According to NICE advice for medical professionals, metals may enter the body through ingestion, inhalation and absorption through skin or mucous membranes.
They are stored in our soft tissues and once absorbed the metals can displace essential minerals and bind to proteins, “leading to impaired enzymatic activity and resulting in damage to many organs throughout the body.”
The health impacts of long-term chronic exposure to heavy metals range from bone mineral loss to gastro-intestinal dysfunction, eyesight deterioration, thinning hair, fatigue, confusion and memory loss.
Heavy metals can be dangerous to mother and infant during pregnancy
Environmental toxins and chronic metal absorption can have an impact on a baby’s development during pregnancy. Mercury, lead and cadmium can cross the placental barrier to accumulate in fetal tissues says a review published in the Middle East Fertility Society Journal. Higher rates of preterm birth, miscarriages and stillbirths are associated with exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium and cadmium.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US states that heavy metals can also be passed to your baby through breast milk.
How can I reduce my exposure to heavy metals?
According to the CDC we don’t know what level of most heavy metals is safe. For most people the risks will be very low. If you do work in a sector with a lot of exposure to metals you will be aware of the risks and should try to reduce or eliminate heavy metal contact as much as possible. Take sensible precautions, wear masks and protective clothing (PPE) and if you can, change out of your work clothes before entering your house.
And we should all try to be aware of our day-to-day environment. Consider exposure to polluted air and water. Read labels on food products, cosmetics, paints, and toys. Wear a mask during a home renovation. Although the toxin levels you absorb might not reach heavy metal toxicity levels, ongoing exposure to metals can have an impact on your wellbeing.
If you are concerned about heavy metal toxicity, or think you may have chronic heavy metal exposure, speak to your doctor who will run tests and advise you on treatment and detox options.
Blood tests can detect current heavy metal exposure which will stay in a person’s blood for up to 90 days. Other tests include hair and urine, and chelation procedures. Some foods associated with assisting heavy metal detox are dietary fibres such as bran, broccoli, chlorella, coriander and garlic.
Acute heavy metal poisoning is when you are exposed to a large amount of metal all at once. In this situation, you should seek medical advice immediately.
Heavy Metal Poisoning, Patient Info, https://patient.info/doctor/heavy-metal-poisoning
Chelation: Harnessing and Enhancing Heavy Metal Detoxification—A Review, Scientific World Journal, Margaret E Sears, April 18, 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3654245/
Reproductive Health and the Workplace, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/repro/heavymetals.html
Heavy metals in miscarriages and stillbirths in developing nations, Middle East Fertility Society, Amadi et al, June 2017,