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Hazards of heavy metal contamination

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, though emissions have declined in most developed countries over the last 100 years. 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. In non-smokers, food is the most important 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. Many individuals in Europe already exceed these exposure levels and the margin is very narrow for large groups. Therefore, measures should be taken to reduce cadmium exposure in the general population in order to minimize the risk of adverse health effects. The general population is primarily exposed to mercury via food, fish being a major source of methyl mercury exposure, and dental amalgam. 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 has been a debate on the safety of dental amalgams and claims have been made that mercury from amalgam may cause a variety of diseases. However, there are no studies so far that have been able to show any associations between amalgam fillings and ill health. 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. Children are particularly susceptible to lead exposure due to high gastrointestinal uptake and the permeable blood-brain barrier. Blood levels in children should be reduced below the levels so far considered acceptable, recent data indicating that there may be neurotoxic effects of lead at lower levels of exposure than previously anticipated. Although lead in petrol has dramatically decreased over the last decades, thereby reducing environmental exposure, phasing out any remaining uses of lead additives in motor fuels should be encouraged. 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. 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. Clear exposure-response relationships and high risks have been observed.

Published on 08-24-2010
Authors: Lars Jarup
Source: British Medical Bulletin 68:167-182 (2003)