Heavy Metals: Exposure & Damage

By Cat, July, 2007; moved and updated from iWeb 4/23/22

We are frequently exposed to toxic heavy metals without realizing it, until we begin to see the damage. Much of the damage doesn’t become visible for years. Some essential heavy metals such as selenium are  toxic if they are not chelated.

Read on to learn more about how you might be exposed to toxic heavy metals. One of the most common toxic metals is mercury: it has been added to many vaccines, and is included in “silver” tooth fillings. When I was a child, we used to play with tiny balls of mercury, breathing in the gas-form of mercury from the balls.

Includes: 1. How Does One Get Exposed to Toxic Heavy Metals? 2. How Do they Do Their Damage? 3. Where Do they Do Their Damage?

How Does One Get Exposed to Toxic Heavy Metals?

It’s much more common than you might think.  The most common modes of exposure to toxic metals are as follows (in alphabetic order): 1

  • Ammunition and explosives 
  • Antiperspirants
  • Antacids, pain killers and other over-the-counter drugs
  • Baking powder (most)
  • Batteries:  lead-acid auto batteries
  • Chemical weapons 
  • Coal-fired power plants and incinerators 
  • Cookware:  aluminum cookware and foil 
  • Coffee creamers and other processed food using aluminum as anti-clumping agent
  • Cosmetics containing imported Kohl, such as eye-liner
  • Clothing:  cotton and wool fabric, leather, furs treated with arsenic
  • Demolition of industrial buildings
  • Dental amalgum (silver) fillings 
  • Fish and shellfish from contaminated waters 
  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Gasoline (leaded) 
  • Hair dyes (some)
  • Kitchen-ware:  old ceramics with lead-based glaze
  • Kitchen-ware:  glass and other lead-containing products
  • Kiitchen-ware:  antique pewter items
  • Paint:  lead-based paints
  • Paint:  exterior and marine 
  • Pesticides
  • Plumbing and water supplies using lead pipes
  • Rat poison
  • Rubber products
  • Smoke alarms 
  • Soil contaminated by industrial sites
  • Solder:  lead solder
  • Thermometers with mercury bulb
  • Tobacco smoke (first and second hand)
  • Vaccines containing thimerosal
  • Watches and clocks with radium-lit dials 
  • Water contaminated by industrial sites or industrial dumping

Or, to summarize by metal (1a): 

  • Aluminum (Al):  anti-perspirant deodorants; aluminum-contaminated water; aluminum cookware–especially for cooking acidic foods like tomatoes; aluminum foil; over-the-counter drugs such as antacids, pain killers; some baking powders; refined foods where aluminum compounds are used as anti-clumping agents, especially coffee creamers;
  • Arsenic (As):  pesticides and rat poison; lead-acid auto batteries; arsenic-treated wools and cotton; arsenic-contaminated water, such as from mining; coal-fired power plants and incinerators; chemical weapons; fish and shellfish
  • Cadmium (Cd):  tobacco smoke (both first and second hand); industrial contamination (from mining, industry, burning coal); and household wastes;
  • Lead (Pb):  lead-based paints; leaded gasoline; lead plumbing pipes; lead solder; lead-contaminated water; manufacturing of lead batteries; rubber products; glass and other lead-containing products; lead oxide fumes from demolishing industrial buildings; imported Kohl used in some cosmetics; certain hair dyes; some ceramic glazes;
  • Mercury (Hg):  dental amalgums, vaccines, fish, fluorescent light bulbs, mercury thermometers; ammunition and explosives; treatment of leather and furs; exterior and marine paints;
  • Radium (Ra):  watches and clocks with radium-lit dials; smoke alarms.

How Do They Do their Damage?

Enzyme Inhibition

Heavy metals have a strong affinity for oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur, all of which are present in abundance in the human body in general, and particularly in proteins.  All the body’s enzymes, which each perform specific and vital functions to keep your body humming along, are made of protein.  For example, the enzymes that help you digest the food you eat; the enzymes that transport minerals into the cell; the enzymes that burn fuel for muscle movement; haemoglobin that transports oxygen through the blood.  When a toxic metal binds to such an enzyme, it alters or completely stops its enzyme activity, and a vital body process is impeded.

While it is the affinity of metal species for sulfur that perhaps does the most damage, it also has a beneficial component as well.  That is, the body has immuno-protective enzymes whose function is to find and bind heavy metals upon ingestion, or when traveling free (unbound) in the blood, and then escort those metals out of the body before they can do damage. These enzymes contain sulfur in the form of a sulfhyrdryl (thiol or SH) group that acts like a claw to reach grab and hold onto the metal ion/atom. (4)

Competition with Vital Minerals

Some metals actively compete with vital minerals for movement across cell membranes in the free ionic form.  For example: ionized calcium and zinc move through bone tissue membranes in the free ionic form.  Lead, a toxic heavy metal, utilizes the calcium pathways in the body and hence is deposited in bone tissue, in place of calcium, where it can be stored for decades, and where it weakens the bone tissue. (4)


Mercury has a unique way of entering cells.  Elemental, non-ionic mercury atoms are oil soluble and so can pass freely through the fatty cell membranes, to enter the interior of the cell.  Once inside, they are converted by an enzyme into its ionic form (Hg2+), which does not readily leave the cell.  But inside the cell, the ionic mercury can do a lot of damage by binding to sulfur in enzymes.  It is especially toxic in cells of the central nervous system, an effect responsible for the saying “mad as a hatter,” because hat-makers of old were often poisoned by the mercury present in the substances used to tan leather and furs.

Where Do They Do Their Damage?

Nearly all the body’s systems are affected by heavy metal toxicity.  The most commonly affected are (4): 

  • Central nervous (brain and spinal column);
  • Peripheral nervous (peripheral nerves)
  • Gastrointestinal (from mouth to anus, and related organs, such as kidney and pancreas)
  • Haematopoietic (spleen, thymus, liver, lymph nodes, bone marrow)
  • Renal (kidneys)
  • Cardiovascular (heart, arteries and veins)
  • Musculoskeletal (bones, muscles, etc.)
  • Reproductive (sex organs)


  1. Mercola: (note his articles may have been removed from his site)
    1. mercola.com/2003/dec/27/toxic_metals.htm
  2. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning
  3. jigsawhealth.com/articles/heavy_metal_toxicity.html
  4. emedicine.com/EMERG/topic237.htm

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