Health Risks of Heavy Metals
Like heavy metal? Think again.
We’re not talking Ozzy here, but in fact
heavy metals that can be very harmful to your health if found
in your drinking water.
Severe effects include reduced growth and development,
cancer, organ damage, nervous system damage, and in extreme cases,
death. Exposure to some metals, such as mercury and lead, may
also cause development of autoimmunity, in which a person's immune
system attacks its own cells. This can lead to joint diseases
such as rheumatoid arthritis, and diseases of the kidneys, circulatory
system, and nervous system.
The young are more prone to the toxic effects
of heavy metals, as the rapidly developing body systems in the
foetus, infants and young children are far more sensitive. Childhood
exposure to some metals can result in learning difficulties,
memory impairment, damage to the nervous system, and behavioural
problems such as aggressiveness and hyperactivity. At higher
doses, heavy metals can cause irreversible brain damage. Children
may receive higher doses of metals from food than adults, since
they consume more food for their body weight than adults.
Where Do They Come From?
Toxic metals can be present in industrial, municipal,
and urban runoff, which can be harmful to humans and aquatic
life. Increased urbanization and industrialization are to blame
for an increased level of trace metals, especially heavy metals,
in our waterways. There are over 50 elements that can be classified
as heavy metals, 17 of which are considered to be both very toxic
and relatively accessible. Toxicity levels depend on the type
of metal, its biological role, and the type of organisms that
are exposed to it.
The heavy metals linked most often to human poisoning
are lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium. Other heavy metals, including
copper, zinc, and chromium, are actually required by the body
in small amounts, but can also be toxic in larger doses.
Heavy metals in the environment are caused by
air emissions from coal-burning plants, smelters, and other industrial
facilities; waste incinerators; process wastes from mining and
industry; and lead in household plumbing and old house paints.
Industry is not totally to blame, as heavy metals can sometimes
enter the environment through natural processes. For example,
in some parts of the U.S., naturally occurring geologic deposits
of arsenic can dissolve into groundwater, potentially resulting
in unsafe levels of this heavy metal in drinking water supplies
in the area. Once released to the environment, metals can remain
for decades or centuries, increasing the likelihood of human
In addition to drinking water, we can be exposed
to heavy metals through inhalation of air pollutants, exposure
to contaminated soils or industrial waste, or consumption of
contaminated food. Because of contaminated water, food sources
such as vegetables, grains, fruits, fish and shellfish can also
become contaminated by accumulating metals from the very soil
and water it grows from.
Sip with confidence, and see if your local water
supply contains any of these harmful metals.
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