Heavy metals are generally defined as metals with relatively high densities. These metals are called heavy metals not because they are too heavy, but because they have large atomic numbers, and therefore large atomic masses.
Long-term exposure to heavy metals may lead to physical, muscular, and neurological degenerative processes. When they become severe, heavy metal poisoning symptoms can even mimic symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
The main threats to human health from heavy metals are associated with exposure to lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. These metals have been extensively studied and their effects on human health regularly reviewed by international bodies such as the WHO. Heavy metals have been used by humans for thousands of years. Although several adverse health effects of heavy metals have been known for a long time, exposure to heavy metals continues, and is even increasing in some parts of the world, in particular in less developed countries.
The general population is exposed to lead from air and food in roughly equal proportions. During the last century, lead emissions to ambient air have caused considerable pollution, mainly due to lead emissions from petrol. The use of lead-based paints should be abandoned, and lead should not be used in food containers. In particular, the public should be aware of glazed food containers, which may leach lead into food.
Cadmium compounds are currently mainly used in re-chargeable nickel-cadmium batteries. Cadmium emissions have increased dramatically during the 20th century, one reason being that cadmium-containing products are rarely re-cycled, but often dumped together with household waste. Cigarette smoking is a major source of cadmium exposure. Recent data indicate that adverse health effects of cadmium exposure may occur at lower exposure levels than previously anticipated, primarily in the form of kidney damage but possibly also bone effects and fractures.
The general population is primarily exposed to mercury via food, fish being a major source of methyl mercury exposure. The general population does not face a significant health risk from methyl mercury, although certain groups with high fish consumption may attain blood levels associated with a low risk of neurological damage to adults. Since there is a risk to the fetus in particular, pregnant women should avoid a high intake of certain fish, such as shark, swordfish and tuna; fish (such as pike, walleye and bass) taken from polluted fresh waters should especially be avoided. There are mixed reviews on connection between dental amalgam (which contain mercury) and the affects on our bodies.
Exposure to arsenic is mainly via intake of food and drinking water, food being the most important source in most populations. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking-water is mainly related to increased risks of skin cancer, but also some other cancers, as well as other skin lesions such as hyperkeratosis and pigmentation changes. Occupational exposure to arsenic, primarily by inhalation, is causally associated with lung cancer.