You wouldn’t want a drink laced with arsenic, mercury, or lead, would you? You especially wouldn’t order a beverage with these toxic substances and give them to your children or vulnerable family members. However, whether you mean to or not, you’re drinking beverages with dangerous heavy metals every day – and it’s coming from your tap. Here, we’ll explain how to remove heavy metals from water at home, as well as how they impact your health and other essential heavy metal information.
What are heavy metals?
Not all heavy metals are dangerous – but even if they naturally come from the Earth, that doesn’t mean you should consume them.
Heavy metals are metals with very high densities (in comparison to water.) Metals with a high atomic number (or atomic weight) may also be considered heavy metals.
In fact, to be considered a heavy metal, it must have a density that is a minimum of 5 times more than water.
While not all heavy metals are toxic (gold, for example, is a heavy metal that is non-toxic), most are harmful to humans, even in low concentrations.
The heavy metals that are of the most significant public health concern are mercury, chromium, lead, cadmium, and arsenic. That’s because these heavy metals are carcinogens and are known to cause organ damage and even death – even at very low levels of exposure.
Check your local water quality from the EPA.
Types of metals classified as heavy metals
Not all heavy metals are toxic, but many on the following list are dangerous for humans to consume – some are even dangerous for humans to contact their skin.
Heavy metals are natural – they come from the crust of the Earth. However, they have a notable point of concern: they cannot be destroyed, and they cannot degrade. While some elements are fundamental to human survival at very low levels (magnesium, copper, zinc, etc.), some are very toxic and can lead to poisoning.
Heavy metals include:
And even more! For a full list of every metal, element, and synthetic element that is considered a heavy metal, check out this entire list.
There are a few metals you might recognize on that list, such as nickel, zinc, arsenic, and even tin!
How do heavy metals get in your home water?
Unfortunately, some of the most dangerous heavy metals are often some of the most essential metals in the industry in the U.S.
Heavy metals are incredibly helpful in agriculture, technology, and industrial settings, especially in concern to manufacturing.
Often, these dangerous heavy metals enter the water supply accidentally.
One way heavy metals enter into your tap water is through industrial waste runoff. The soil may soak up heavy metals after industrial areas release steam or smoke into the air or after the rain passes through waste within industrial areas and, in turn, moves into the water table.
Acid rain will fall, which will contaminate the soil, and erode into the water supply. Acid rain is a lot more common than it may appear – acid rain occurs when pollutants or very fine particles accumulate within the atmosphere. Acid rain can come in a few forms you may be familiar with, such as smog and thick pollution. Acid rain can be caused by industrial emissions, as well as from your car and the burning of fossil fuels.
Improperly disposed of consumer waste will get into the water supply, often through our standard sewage system. It is important not to flush anything besides human waste into the sewage system, as drugs and other products cannot break down in the plants and contaminate the water supply.
Even the pipes, faucets, and fixtures in your home and leech heavy metals into your tap water and water supply!
Unfortunately, most heavy metals are not able to be seen by the naked eye. The water we drink is tasteless, has no odor, and is transparent – which makes it difficult to see the dangerous heavy metals that could be lurking.
The top metals found in drinking water
There are five primary heavy metals that are commonly found in drinking water.
These metals are:
- Manganese: This is a metal that can be found within aluminum alloys. It can also be found in unleaded gasoline, fireworks, tobacco, plumbing, and batteries. While in small amounts, it’s considered an essential gut nutrient, higher levels of exposure can lead to nervous system damage.
- Cadmium: Commonly used in machinery, batteries, and metal plates, cadmium usually ends up in humans after they consume animals or plants that were exposed to contaminated soil.
- Arsenic: Arsenic naturally comes from the Earth’s crust and is the result of a natural crust activity, such as Volcanic activity. Pesticides and mining have led to arsenic leaching into the water supply.
- Lead: Lead is poisonous to your system, even in small doses. While it most often gets into your tap water through the corrosion of water supply pipes, it can also leech into the water supply when natural deposits from the ground erode.
- Copper: Copper is found in drinking water more than any other type of heavy metal. Copper gets into your tap water through water supply pipes, residential fixtures, and even your faucets.
The types of metals found in water
The main types of metals found in water are:
Let’s break down how those impact you and your health.
Good metals that are generally safe
Chromium: In small amounts, chromium is actually really important for humans. Chromium, in conjunction with insulin, helps the human body remove glucose. It also allows you to process fats, helping your metabolism.
One form of chromium, hexavalent chromium, is very toxic. It can cause allergic reactions, trigger asthma, diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, and kidney and liver damage.
Manganese: Unless you consume it in large amounts, manganese is not very harmful to you. A naturally-occurring element, the worst that manganese is going to do is cause some staining to your sink. In larger concentrations, manganese has a bitter taste. It can also help with cholesterol and help you metabolite carbohydrates.
Zinc: Zinc doesn’t have any serious adverse health effects. It has an unfavorable metallic taste and causes corrosion within your plumbing system. Still, it can be useful for your gut health in your regular tap water and won’t cause you any problems. Zinc also boosts your immune system and can even help your metabolism!
Iron: A very common mineral, iron, actually comprises 5% of Earth’s entire crust. Iron is very abundant and does not cause any serious human health concerns. It causes a weird color in your water supply and can cause an odd odor and taste. It will build up in your water pipes but won’t harm you. In small doses, iron helps your energy, gastrointestinal system, boost your immune system, and even help you focus!
Nickel: Nickel doesn’t have any human health benefits, but it’s not particularly harmful, either. In very, very large doses, nickel can lead to some tummy troubles and skin irritation, but you are unlikely to consume that level naturally or through your water.
Harmful metals in drinking water
Arsenic is one of the heavy metals found in drinking water on both the WHO’s list of worst chemicals and the EPA’s. Chronic, long-term arsenic poisoning will affect your skin, nervous and digestive system, and, eventually, your brain function. Additionally, arsenic is known to cause cancer, even in previously healthy humans.
Cadmium is a heavy metal that can also cause cancer. It impacts your kidneys first and can trigger worrisome fevers and gastrointestinal problems. Cadmium exposure can also affect your musculoskeletal system, impacting your ability to stand, move, and adjust, as the musculoskeletal system is responsible for the skeleton, tendons, muscles, and all connective tissue.
Lead is an ongoing problem, especially for communities with older to established plumbing systems. Lead can seep into your drinking water through the city’s water supply, as well as through your own water supply. Lead causes anemia, kidney damage, and nervous system issues, causing severe mental impairments in fetuses and growing children, and even brain damage for young and old alike.
Copper is one of the less dangerous of the harmful heavy metals. While you still do not want to consume it, copper is okay to wear on your body. Copper, if ingested, causes mild to severe gastrointestinal problems. Long-term exposure will lead to permanent liver and kidney damage.
Mercury can often be found in drinking water in minimal quantities. Mercury can cause neurological problems, as well as reproductive problems. A very dangerous form of mercury, methylmercury, is one form that bioaccumulates. That means that each stage that it is prevalent in the food chain, it increases in concentration, leading to neurological and gastrointestinal problems in humans.
Symptoms of drinking heavy metals and your body
Part of the reason heavy metals are so dangerous to your body is because they bioaccumulate. That is a fancy way of saying they build up in your body, as your body has no chemicals or proteins that can break them down.
They stick around and cause you to become very, very ill. Often, long-term exposure to heavy metals results in the breakdown of your nervous system.
Symptoms of long-term heavy metal exposure
The symptoms from heavy metal exposure will vary from person to person, by age, and even if you have any underlying medical conditions.
Acute (large amounts, all at once) heavy metal poisoning symptoms include:
- Paranoia or sudden confusion
- Numbness in extremities
- Uncontrolled vomiting
Chronic heavy metal exposure symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- Limb or body weakness
- Headaches and migraines
- Tiredness or the inability to feel rested
- Unexplained muscle pain
- Joint pain that can’t be relieved
- Gastro- and intestine problems, such as diarrhea, constipation, or pain when you go
What heavy metals in drinking water lead to cancer?
The primary heavy metals that lead to cancer are cadmium, arsenic, nickel, and chromium.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified all these metals as class 1 carcinogens, and all can be found in contaminated drinking water.
Rules and regulations on Arsenic
While a few heavy metals can lead to cancer, arsenic is the biggest one, as even very small amounts can trigger severe and deadly complications.
Arsenic has no taste and no odor. While it can sometimes enter your water supply due to agriculture and industrial mishandling, it can also happen from natural deposits that break down in the water supply.
Arsenic can cause discoloring and thickening of the skin, stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, numbness in your feet and hands, partial bi- or quad-paralysis, and even blindness.
Arsenic has been linked to cancers, especially cancers related to:
Medical treatment for heavy metal poisoning
Your doctor or medical professional will often have you take a blood test or urine test to determine if your symptoms align with heavy metal poisoning.
To begin with, your doctor will tell you that you must eliminate the source of the exposure (such as using a water filter to purify your water.)
Other treatments may encompass:
- A chelating agent, like Chemet
- Pumping or suctioning your stomach
- Intracranial monitoring
How to remove heavy metals from water at home
The easiest way you clean and filter heavy metals from your drinking water is to use a water filter.
Another way to remove heavy metals from your water supply includes replacing any and old pipes that are leeching metals into your water. Check or replace faucets, lines, and fixtures that are leeching heavy metals into your tap water.
Kinetic Degradation Fluxion, or KDF, is a type of filter that changes the metals on an atomic level, causing them to bond to the filter media and not pass through the tap to you.
Ion Exchange Resin is a filter that works by exchanging the ions that make up the heavy metals, causing the harmful ions to be replaced with calcium or magnesium ions that your body can easily and quickly break down.
Types of water filters
Types of water filters that will purify your water include:
- Activated alumina
- Ceramic filters
- Activated carbon
- A reverse osmosis water system
- Water distillation
- Water pitchers
Water pitchers are a standard solution, as These pitchers have built-in filters that are easy to use and filter water through mid-sized filters.
Reverse osmosis systems are a common choice for removing heavy metals from your tap water. These systems can remove lead, mercury, chlorine, fluoride, and even arsenic from your water supply. It uses a membrane, or a series of membranes, to trap the metals before it can enter your water supply. Unfortunately, reverse osmosis systems need a lot of water pressure and leads to a lot of water waste.
Activated carbon is one of the most popular home water filters, as it can remove all kinds of harmful metals and other chemicals from your water.