They could be lurking in your favorite food or around your living space. They’re known to slowly accumulate in the body over many years. And their effects on health can be devastating.

The nightmarish poisons we’re talking about are toxic heavy metals, which include lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. All four metals are on the World Health Organization’s list of top ten chemicals of major public health concern. Lead exposure accounted for half a million deaths worldwide in 2015 alone. The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has ranked arsenic, lead and mercury as the top three toxins with “the most significant potential threat to human health” for nearly 30 years.

Heavy metal substances are continually released by industrial activities into the air we breathe, the ocean and rivers that provide our seafood, and the soil in which our crops grow. Heavy metals can also be found in batteries, paints, lipstick, antique items and car exhaust. You don’t have to be a firefighter, auto mechanic or manufacturing worker to be exposed to toxic metals on a daily basis. Worse, chronic low-level exposure may not produce alarming symptoms until serious health damage has been done.

Here are the top four toxic heavy metals to watch out for:

  • Lead. The global effort to phase out the use of lead in many products is far from complete. Even in the US, lead is still found in paint and plumbing in some older homes. Lead is typically breathed in as dust or swallowed as contaminated water or food. At high levels, lead can severely damage the brain and kidneys as well as cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Long-term exposure may decrease mental performance and cause weakness in limbs. Children’s growth and learning are sensitive to even low levels of exposure. Lead is considered a probable human carcinogen.
  • Mercury. Elemental mercury is converted by aquatic bacteria into methylmercury. Humans become exposed to methylmercury mainly through the consumption of contaminated fish. Absorbed methylmercury can travel to the brain as well as reach the developing fetus. High levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and fetus and cause changes in brain functioning, resulting in irritability, shyness, tremors, changes in vision or hearing, and memory problems.
  • Arsenic. Arsenic is both naturally occurring and used as pesticides in the past. That’s why some foods, including rice and certain vegetables and fruits, are known to contain arsenic. Chronic arsenic exposure to arsenic can cause skin discoloration and lesions. Inorganic arsenic is an established human carcinogen. Ingesting it can increase the risk of skin, liver, bladder and lung cancers, whereas lung cancer is the primary cancer risk from inhaling arsenic.
  • Cadmium. Cadmium is an industrial byproduct, a contaminant in soils and a chemical released in cigarette smoke. Despite its toxicity, cadmium is still used to make some batteries, jewelry and toys. Breathing or ingesting cadmium long term can lead to kidney disease, lung damage and fragile bones. Cadmium is a human carcinogen, associated with lung, prostate, kidney and pancreatic cancers.

So how can you minimize exposure to these hazardous heavy metals? Here’s a sensible list of things to start with:

  • Filter tap water for drinking and cooking.
  • Buy organic produce when possible. Locally grown food may also offer good choices.
  • Choose low-mercury seafood such as shrimp, salmon and canned light tuna.
  • Know the air quality before planning outdoor activities. Official forecasts for US localities are available at AirNow (
  • When in doubt about the heavy metal content of an item, keep children away from it.

The fact remains that no one can realistically avoid all possible sources of heavy metals. Many heavy metals are known to accumulate in vital organs, where they continually exert toxic effects on cellular metabolism and function, even contribute to cancer formation over time. That’s why it’s so important to facilitate the elimination of these toxic metals from the body. Exercise and the sauna have been suggested to promote the sweating out of toxins. Natural products with the ability to chelate or bind to heavy metals, support detoxification and boost cellular defenses are especially beneficial. For a healthier, more vibrant tomorrow, take steps to protect yourself and your family from heavy metals today.