Heavy Metals and Metalloids


About: Arsenic (As) is a heavy metal that is a natural component of the earth’s crust and is widely distributed throughout the environment. It can be extremely toxic when ingested in large amounts and for long periods of time.

Sources of Exposure: Contaminated drinking water, using contaminated water in food preparation and irrigation of food crops, industrial processes, eating contaminated food and smoking tobacco (WHO).

Acute (Short Term) Exposure Health Effects:

  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin lesions – can lead to cancer
  • Nerve damage – tingling and numbness

Chronic (Long Term) Exposure Health Effects:

  • Cancer-Skin,Lung, Bladder
  • Arsenic induced Heart Attack
  • “Black Foot Disease” (Gangrene)
  • Exposure while in utero and in early childhood;
    • Infant mortality
    • Lung disease
    • Heart disease
    • Kidney disease
    • Developmental delays – intelligence and memory

Informational Resources:


About: Cadmium (Cd) is a heavy metal commonly found in soils. While it does occur naturally in small amounts, human activity has significantly increased concentrations. This contamination can make its way into your body through crops that uptake the heavy metal, or be taken in from breathing in particles that have been kicked up. Cd has no apparent adverse side effects at low levels, but it does at high levels.

Sources of Exposure: Soil polluted by welding, electroplating, pesticide fertilizer, batteries, or nuclear fission plants.

Acute (Short Term) Exposure Health Effects:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Lung damage

Chronic (Long Term) Exposure Health Effects:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic rhinitis
  • Deterioration of olfactory epithelium
  • Bronchitis
  • Renal tubular dysfunction
  • Bone defects

Informational Resources:


About: Chromium (Cr) is a heavy metal that has many oxidation states with two forms being the most common.

Chromium (III): Insoluble compound and naturally occurring in animals and humans as an essential nutrient. While still associated with high exposure toxicity, Chromium (III) is poorly absorbed and therefore considered much less dangerous than Chromium (VI) (CDC).

Chromium (VI): Man-made compound, more commonly toxic due to its solubility and ability to diffuse through cellular membranes and reactive intermediates from intracellular reduction. CR (VI) has been deemed a human carcinogen by DHHS, EPA, WHO, and IARC.

Sources of Exposure: Chromate pigments/plating, smelting particles, stainless steel fumes, industrial workspaces, etc.

Acute (Short Term) Exposure Health Effects:

  • Asthma
  • Respiratory distress
    • Runny nose, sneezing, coughing, itching, burning sensation
  • Gastrointestinal effects (abdominal/substernal pain)
  • Dermal effects (irritation to eyes and skin)
    • Allergic contact dermatitis, skin ulcers

Chronic (Long Term) Exposure Health Effects:

  • Lung, nasal, and sinus cancer
  • Nose sores, perforation of nasal septum, etc.
  • DNA damage, gene mutation

Informational Resources:


About: Lead (Pb) is a heavy metal historically used for batteries, paints, ceramics, solder, and largely gasoline. In 1995, leaded gasoline was phased out in the US and significantly lowered lead emissions (3). There is no safe blood level of lead for children (2). Lead exposure can be prevented through phasing out of lead-containing products, as well as testing properties for lead contamination.

Sources of Exposure: Buildings and materials painted with paint containing lead and areas around old smelter sites.

Acute (Short Term) Exposure Health Effects (1):

  • Headaches
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness

Chronic (Long Term) Exposure Health Effects (1,4):

  • Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • Attention-related behavioral problems
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Reduced fertility for men and women

Informational Resources:


  1. “Lead: Health Problems Caused By Lead”. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, 2018. Accessed 22 Oct 2018.
  2. “Lead Poisoning And Health”. World Health Organization, 2018. Accessed 22 Oct 2018.
  3. “Report On The Environment | Lead Emissions”. US EPA, 2018. Accessed 22 Oct 2018.
  4. Aderholt, Matthew et al. “Phytoextraction Of Contaminated Urban Soils By Panicum Virgatum L. Enhanced With Application Of A Plant Growth Regulator (BAP) And Citric Acid”. Chemosphere, vol 175, 2017, pp. 85-96. Accessed 22 Oct 2018.