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A Look at the Different Ways You Can Be Exposed to Dangerous Heavy Metals

An Overview of Heavy Metal Contaminants

It may surprise you, but your body contains various metals and metal-like elements that either contribute to your overall health or put your health at risk. Metals like mercury, lead, arsenic, lithium and cadmium – also known as “heavy metals” – can accumulate in your body when you are exposed to them in your drinking water, foods or even the air you breathe.

While a lot of the chemical elements we ingest (like iodine, zinc or copper) have essential functions within the body, most heavy metals do not offer benefits to the body. In fact, instead of supporting your bodily functions, these heavy metals are very toxic in higher concentrations and can interfere with the proper function of important systems in the body (like the nervous and immune system).

The good news is that there are ways to minimize your heavy metal exposure so that you can avoid sources of heavy metal exposure and keep your levels low and your health intact. So what are some of these metals?

What Are the Most Common Heavy Metals We May Be Exposed to?

There are five main heavy metals that humans should work hard to lower our exposure to.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust and can be released into the environment through volcanic activity, erosion of rocks and soils and by human processes. It can take several forms; in its elemental (metallic) form it is a dense silvery liquid, in its inorganic form it is released into the air through industrial processes or incineration and in its organic form it is most often broken down by bacteria into methylmercury and can be inhaled or get absorbed into our fruits and grains.

These different forms of mercury also have varying levels of toxicity and can create problems in our nervous, digestive and immune systems as well as our lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.

Lead can be found everywhere just like other naturally occurring heavy metals. Most human exposure is from human made products. Lead from industrial processes is released through smokestacks where it then falls on the soil of our gardens and farmland; where we grow our yummy vegetables. Federal, state, and local regulations enacted in the last half century have limited lead exposure greatly from what it used to be by removing it from paints, gasoline and many other consumer products.

Arsenic is another naturally occurring element. Our food is the number one source of arsenic. Fortunately, much of this is ingested in its less dangerous, organic form. The foods where the highest levels of arsenic are found include seafood, rice and rice products, mushrooms, and poultry. Drinking water, especially well water is also a source. By far the greatest threat comes from human industrial processes.

Lithium may be best known as the gold standard for treating bipolar disorder. However, lithium has now become an essential element in rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles, mobile phones, laptops and electric tools. Lithium is also essential in non-rechargeable batteries for heart pacemakers, toys, clocks and other essentials.

Cadmium is a relatively widespread element that is rarely found in its pure metal state because it most often forms complex compounds with other metals, especially zinc, lead and copper. Cadmium has a wide range of uses, including the processing of zinc and copper and the manufacture of rechargeable batteries.

How Are We Exposed to Heavy Metals?

Avoiding heavy metal exposure is most effectively communicated and practiced when we can answer two questions: How are we exposed to heavy metals?
How do heavy metals enter the body?

Human exposure to mercury in any of its forms is dangerous to human health. The most common exposures occur when we consume fish and shellfish that has been contaminated with methylmercury or when elemental mercury vapors are inhaled by industrial workers. The health effects of inhaled or consumed mercury include: tremors, mood swings, irritability, nervousness.

Lead still is found in foods, drinking water and soils, but thankfully at lower levels than in decades past because of stringent regulations. The main exposure issues come from old homes with lead paint and decomposing lead water pipes. These still pose distinct risks especially to children and developing fetuses. Symptoms of lead toxicity include delayed growth, lower IQ, hyperactivity, anemia, reproductive issues, kidney problems.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the environment. It is normal for us to ingest small amounts of arsenic when we breathe in the air, drink our water and eat our food. Water, especially in some rural areas of the western United States, can naturally contain higher levels of naturally occurring arsenic, usually in well water from aquifers. This is because arsenic was used in a lot of herbicides and pesticides before 1993.

However, people can also become exposed to higher levels of arsenic through a number of human-made products. People working in industrial plants or pressure treated wood factories are more likely to breathe in arsenic or absorb it through the skin.

Some symptoms of arsenic poisoning are: red or swollen skin, new warts or lesions on skin, abdominal pain,nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps or tingling in fingers and toes. More serious exposure to arsenic leads to darkening skin, persistent sore throat and long term digestive issues

Most of the time people get exposed to lithium through drinking water and this includes bottled water. The health effects of too much exposure have been linked to increasing thyrotropin (TSH) and decreasing free thyroxine (fT4) levels and can be particularly problematic for developing fetuses during pregnancies. Exposure to lithium has also been linked to health issues like: loss of appetite, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Industrial workers can be exposed to cadmium especially in manufacturing and construction. The most common jobs in danger of cadmium exposure are smelting and refining of metals, manufacturing and recycling of batteries, electroplating, metal machining, welding, plastic recycling, coatings, and solar panels.

Foods can also be contaminated with cadmium, especially: crustaceans, organ meats, leafy vegetables and rice from specific regions in Japan and China. Cigarette smoke contains high levels of cadmium as well. Exposure to cadmium can affect the kidneys, lungs and bones.

How Can We Lower or Stop Exposure?

Because so much of human heavy metal exposure is connected to the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe, our efforts to lower exposure must begin with heavy metal exposure testing of our foods, water sources and indoor air quality. Many efforts have already been made to limit exposure by forbidding the use of these heavy metals in paints, gasoline, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other products. However, metals like lithium and cadmium are now in greater demand than ever before because of their usefulness in battery production and other technological uses.

Proper disposal of these metals is vital for the health of our soil and of water aquifers far beneath the surface. Education of the importance of proper disposal of batteries, lighting, paints, solar panels, cell phones and computer products and providing seamless opportunities for their proper disposal will be increasingly important moving forward.

With concerns about our food, water and indoor air we can conduct heavy metal exposure testing on our shellfish, seafoods, organ meats, drinking water sources and even the quality of our indoor air in businesses and especially industries with risks of exposure to heavy metals. Environmental laboratories are highly capable of identifying heavy metals to the parts per billion and even parts per trillion.

If your job or your well water or your diet lead you to suspect they could be sources of heavy metal exposure, it is essential that you make a request for testing on these sources. And if you and your doctor have identified that health problems point in the direction of heavy metal exposure there are also tests that identify levels in your body as well.


Torrent Laboratory is based in Northern California and has decades of experience in heavy metal testing in water, air, soil and food. Torrent offers testing to detect metals using ICP-MS (Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry). This method is effective when you need to detect low levels of trace metals in groundwater or drinking water, and when you need to confirm the presence of certain metals in a water or soil matrix.

Torrent Laboratory’s environmental testing services are backed by a breadth and depth of certification, including California’s Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (CA ELAP), The Department of Defense Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (DoD ELAP), The Department of Energy Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (DOE ELAP) and National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Certification (NELAC).