Hazards of heavy metal contamination
Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Imperial College, London, UK
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.