Metal toxicity or metal poisoning is the toxic effect of certain metals in certain forms and doses on life. Some metals are toxic when they form poisonous soluble compounds. Certain metals have no biological role, i.e. are not essential minerals, or are toxic when in a certain form. In the case of lead, any measurable amount may have negative health effects. It is often thought that only heavy metals can be toxic, but lighter metals such as beryllium and lithium may also be in certain circumstances. Not all heavy metals are particularly toxic, and some are essential, such as iron. The definition may also include trace elements when abnormally high doses may be toxic. An option for treatment of metal poisoning may be chelation therapy, a technique involving the administration of chelation agents to remove metals from the body.
Toxic metals sometimes imitate the action of an essential element in the body, interfering with the metabolic process resulting in illness. Many metals, particularly heavy metals are toxic, but some heavy metals are essential, and some, such as bismuth, have a low toxicity. Most often the definition of toxic metals includes at least thallium, cadmium, manganese, lead, mercury and the radioactive metals.Metalloids (arsenic, polonium) may be included in the definition. Radioactive metals have both radiological toxicity and chemical toxicity. Metals in an oxidation state abnormal to the body may also become toxic: chromium(III) is an essential trace element, but chromium(VI) is a carcinogen.
Toxicity is a function of solubility. Insoluble compounds as well as the metallic forms often exhibit negligible toxicity. The toxicity of any metal depends on its ligands. In some cases, organometallic forms, such as methylmercury and tetraethyl lead, can be extremely toxic. In other cases, organometallic derivatives are less toxic such as the cobaltocenium cation.
Decontamination for toxic metals is different from organic toxins: because toxic metals are elements, they cannot be destroyed. Toxic metals may be made insoluble or collected, possibly by the aid of chelating agents, or through bioremediation. Alternatively, they can be diluted into a sufficiently large reservoir, such as the sea, because immediate toxicity is a function of concentration rather than amount.
Toxic metals can bioaccumulate in the body and in the food chain. Therefore, a common characteristic of toxic metals is the chronic nature of their toxicity. This is particularly notable with radioactive heavy metals such as radium, which imitates calcium to the point of being incorporated into human bone, although similar health implications are found in lead or mercury poisoning.
People are continually exposed to metals in the environment. Medical tests can detect metals often, but this is to be expected and alone is not evidence that a person is poisoned. Metal screening tests should not be used unless there is reason to believe that a person has had excessive exposure to metals. People should seek medical testing for poisoning only if they are concerned for a particular reason, and physicians should consider a patient’s history and physical examination before conducting tests to detect metals.
Chelation therapy is a medical procedure that involves the administration of chelating agents to remove heavy metals from the body. Chelating agents are molecules that have multiple electron-donating groups, which can form stable coordination complexes with metal ions. Complexation prevents the metal ions from reacting with molecules in the body, and enable them to be dissolved in blood and eliminated in urine. It should only be used in people who have a diagnosis of metal intoxication. That diagnosis should be validated with tests done in appropriate biological samples.
Chelation therapy is administered under very careful medical supervision due to various inherent risks. Even when the therapy is administered properly, the chelation drugs can have significant side effects. Chelation administered inappropriately can cause neurodevelopmental toxicity, increase risk of developing cancer, and cause death; chelation also removes essential metal elements and requires measures to prevent their loss.
Acute aluminium phosphide poisoning (AAlPP) is a large, though under-reported, problem in the Indian subcontinent. Aluminium phosphide (AlP), which is readily available as a fumigant for stored cereal grains, sold under various brand names such as QuickPhos and Celphos, is highly toxic, especially when consumed from a freshly opened container. Death results from profound shock, myocarditis and multi-organ failure. Aluminium phosphide has a fatal dose of between 0.15 and 0.5 grams (0.0053 and 0.0176 oz). It has been reported to be the most common cause of suicidal death in North India. The very high toxicity of aluminium phosphide is attributed to the phosphine content and is not related to aluminium. Calcium phosphide and zinc phosphide are similar poisons.