The most dangerous heavy metals for your body.

Inside: toxic mechanisms of top five heavy metals

Due to a massive hike in industrial activities, human exposure to heavy metals is increasing day by day. Metals that have density values of more than 5 g/cm3 are considered heavy metals and mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic are the most common heavy metals that have an adverse effect on the human body.  

These heavy metals are considered poisonous and their toxicity depends on concentration, period of exposure and route of exposure. Hence, heavy metals can become strongly toxic by mixing with different environmental elements, such as water, soil, and air, and humans and other living organisms can be exposed to them through the food chain.

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Bioaccumulation of these heavy metals leads to a diversity of toxic effects on a variety of body tissues and organs.

They are transported and compartmentalized into body cells and tissues binding to proteins, and nucleic acids destroying these macromolecules and disrupting their cellular functions.

Thus, there are several consequences in the human body due to heavy metal toxicity. It can affect the central nervous function leading to mental disorders, damage the blood constituents and may damage the lungs, liver, kidneys and other vital organs promoting several disease conditions.

Also, long-term accumulation of heavy metals in the body may result in slowing the progression of physical, muscular and neurological degenerative processes that mimic certain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Also, repeated long-term contact with some heavy metals should be avoided as their compounds may even damage nucleic acids, cause mutation, mimic hormones thereby disrupting the endocrine and reproductive system and eventually leading to cancer.

Hence, here is the in-depth toxic mechanism of the top 5 Heavy Metals which are affecting the human body adversely: 


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1. Mercury

Mercury is one of the toxic heavy metals which is found in air, water and soil in three different forms, i.e, Metallic Mercury, Inorganic Mercury and Organic Mercury. Being liquid at room temperature, metallic mercury can be readily evaporated to produce vapour. Mercury is used in producing dental amalgams, thermometers and some batteries.

Also, it can be found in some chemical, electrical equipment, automotive, metal-processing, and building industries. Mercury can exist in a gaseous form thus it can be inhaled. Mercury vapour is known to be more hazardous than liquid form. Other forms of mercury contamination in humans may be through anthropogenic activities such as municipal wastewater discharges, agriculture, incineration, mining, and discharges of industrial wastewater.

Mercury has been shown to cause neurotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, and hepatotoxicity in humans. High Dose Exposure to Mercury may induce severe complications such as abdominal colic pain, bloody diarrhoea, and kidney failure.

Many skin infections are caused by mercury and mercury-containing compounds, including acrodynia (pink disease), a common dermatological ailment in which the skin becomes pink when exposed to heavy metals, particularly mercury.

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2. Lead

Lead is considered a harmful environmental pollutant. Many body organs have the high toxic effect of lead. It can be absorbed through the skin, respiratory and digestive systems. The main sources of lead exposure include drinking water, food, cigarette, industrial processes and domestic sources. Due to its high toxicity, it has adverse effects on the neurological, biological, and cognitive functions of the body.

Lead can induce neurological, respiratory, urinary, and cardiovascular disorders due to immune-modulation, oxidative, and inflammatory mechanisms. Furthermore, Pb could disturb the balance of the oxidant-antioxidant system and induce inflammatory responses in various organs.

It can produce alteration in the physiological functions of the body and is associated with many diseases. Lead is a carcinogenic substance that causes damage to the DNA repair mechanism, cellular tumour regulating genes, and chromosomal structure and sequence by releasing ROS. Exposure to lead toxicity on liver cells increases oxidative stress resulting in liver damage.

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3. Chromium

Chromium (Cr) is found in the earth’s crust and seawater and is a naturally occurring heavy metal in industryial processes. It is present in petroleum and coal, chromium steel, pigment oxidants, fertilizers, catalyst, oil well drilling and metal plating tanneries.

The primary route of exposure for nonoccupational human populations occurs via ingestion of chromium-containing food and water or dermal contact with products containing chromium. Chemical industries release a large amount of Cr into the soil, groundwater, and air which causes health issues in humans, animals, and marine life.

Bioaccumulation of Chromium in the Human Body can cause a variety of diseases that ranges from dermal, renal, neurological, and GI diseases to the development of several cancers including lungs, larynx, bladder, kidneys, testicles, bone, and thyroid. High doses of hexavalent chromium reduce the phagocytic action of alveolar macrophages and the humoral immune response.

Chromium Exposure also causes the development of allergic contact dermatitis. 

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4. Cadmium

Cadmium occurs naturally in soil and minerals such as sulfide, sulfate, carbonate, chloride, and hydroxide salts as well as in water.

Cadmium is emitted through industrial processes and from cadmium smelters into sewage sludge, fertilizers, and groundwater which can remain in soils and sediments for several decades and be taken up by plants. Therefore, significant human exposure to cadmium can be by the ingestion of contaminated foodstuffs especially cereals, grains, fruits and leafy vegetables as well as contaminated beverages.

Cadmium exposure may also occur through smoking, which is capable of elevating blood and urine cadmium concentrations. Necessary mechanisms in the body can be disturbed due to Cadmium water contamination which possibly results in short-term or long-term disorders. Cadmium is a toxicant and carcinogenic metal that induces kidney disease, bone disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Low to moderate cadmium exposure results in hypertension, diabetes, carotid atherosclerosis, peripheral arterial disease, chronic kidney disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, and heart failure. 

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5. Arsenic

Arsenic is a harmful heavy metal that is exposed to the human body through occupational or contaminated food and water. The primary mode of absorption for Arsenic is through Small Intestine. Other routes of exposure are skin contact and inhalation.

Arsenic is a known reproductive toxin in humans, Inorganic arsenic impairs male reproduction by reducing the weights of the testes, the accessory sex organs, and the number of sperm in the epididymis. Aside from affecting sperm production, inorganic arsenic exposure also causes variations in testosterone and gonadotropin levels, as well as disturbances in the steroidogenesis process.

In females, arsenic consumption is associated with an increased incidence of endometrial cancer. Symptoms of endometriosis, subfertility, prematurity, sterility and spontaneous abortions are all caused by these conditions. Acute and Chronic Arsenic Toxicity also leads to the dysfunction of numerous vital enzymes. Arsenic Exposure causes Arsenical keratosis and hyperpigmentation of the skin.

A High Dose of Arsenic Exposure may also develop skin cancer. Arsenic causes epigenetic alterations, damage to DNA, changes in the p53 protein's expression, histone modifications, DNA methylation and reduced p21 expression.


Thus, the Toxic Mechanism of heavy metals is a growing concern and has widespread harmful effects on the human body that requires preventive and effective treatment.


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