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Heavy Metals

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Heavy metals, like arsenic, lead, mercury, and others, are all around us. They’re in the ground we walk on, in the water we drink, and in the products we use every day. You can cope with standard day to day exposures, but high levels of most heavy metals can make you sick.

If sick from heavy metal exposures you need to reduce your exposures significantly, and get medical treatments like nutritional therapies and medically supervised detoxification therapies.

Heavy Metal Basics

Scientists group these elements based on their higher density, or atomic weights. Many heavy metals exist, including:

  • Arsenic
  • Cadmium
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Zinc

Not all of these metals are bad for you. We need small amounts of some of them, such as copper and iron, to keep our bodies healthy.

Who Gets Heavy Metal Poisoning?

This can happen if you eat or drink something tainted with heavy metals or if you breathe in contaminated dust or fumes.

You might get heavy metal poisoning if you:

  • Work in a factory that uses heavy metals
  • Breathe in old lead paint dust when you fix up your home
  • Eat fish caught in an area with high levels of mercury
  • Use herbal medicines that have heavy metals in them
Acute poisoning. This happens if you get a high dose at one time, like in a chemical accident in a factory or after a child swallows a toy made with lead. Symptoms usually come on quickly and you may:

  • Feel confused
  • Go numb
  • Feel sick and throw up
  • Pass out

Acute poisoning is an emergency. Call your doctor or local poison control center right away.

Chronic poisoning. You get this after contact with a low dose over a long time. As the metal builds up in your body, you can get sick. Symptoms of chronic poisoning come on slowly and are often misdiagnosed as stress and mental health concerns.

  • Symptoms of heavy metal toxicity can range from fatigue, headache, depression, anxiety, insomnia, brain fog, memory issues and muscle weakness to unexplained chronic gut issues, a disturbed sense of smell and a metallic taste in the mouth. Neurological signs include tremors, dizziness, tingling or burning in extremities and numbness. Seizures can also occur.
Different tests can check for different types of heavy metals. Some might test your blood or pee. Others might require an X-ray. Others may use technologies like Oligoscan to help with diagnosis.
Your doctor will also ask you about your job, hobbies, diet, and anything else that could have put you in contact with dangerous substances.Tests for heavy metals aren’t routine. Your doctor would test you only if you show symptoms and there is a history of high exposure.  Doing an exposure history like the one at ATSDR/CDC can help highlight any current and past high exposures that may be making you ill.


The main step is to stay away from whatever made you sick so you don’t make the problem worse. Your doctor can help you figure out how to protect yourself.  If you heavy metal toxicity is chronic and linked to other health conditions that are complex and difficult to resolve, you may also be advised to stay away other toxicants in order to avoid further poisoning due to hightened risk.

If your poisoning is serious, one treatment option is chelation. You get drugs, usually through an IV needle, that go into your blooda nd “stick” to the heavy metals in your body. They then get flushed out with your pee.

Chelation can be an important part of treatment. But the therapy can be dangerous, and it doesn’t work with all heavy metals. So doctors only use it only if you have high levels of the metal in some circumstances.

Nutritonal therapies and alternative detoxification therapies are favored by doctors trained in Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. These are slower than chelation, but when done properly under medical supervision are usually a much safer form of treatment for chronic heavy metal toxicity.

Unproven Tests and Treatments

Some experts say that heavy metal poisoning is rare, other experts say it is a growing public concern . Lots of websites claim it’s common and blame it, without proof, for all sorts of health problems. Many businesses sell unreliable tests and expensive or even dangerous treatments.

Hair analysis or chelation challenge tests (“provoked urine” tests) can be  inaccurate. They can’t tell you if you’re sick or need treatment.

Over-the-counter chelation treatments. These are not approved by the FDA, may not be safe, and there’s no evidence that they work.

If you think you have heavy metal poisoning, don’t try to diagnose it or treat it on your own. See your doctor instead.


If you’re worried about heavy metal poisoning, your doctor can give you personalized advice. General tips include:

  • If you work with heavy metals, always wear masks or other safety equipment.
  • Check local fish advisories to make sure the fish you eat is safe.
  • If you live in a home built before 1978, hire an expert to test it for lead paint.
  • Check labels on products for heavy metals.
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