BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo

Heavy metals


Some heavy metals are either essential nutrients (typically iron, cobalt, and zinc), or relatively harmless (such as ruthenium, silver, and indium), but can be toxic in larger amounts or certain forms. Other heavy metals, such as cadmium, mercury, and lead, are highly poisonous. Potential sources of heavy metal poisoning include mining, tailings, industrial wastes, agricultural runoff, occupational exposure, paints and treated timber.

The heaviness of naturally occurring metals such as gold, copper, and iron may have been noticed in prehistory and, in light of their malleability, led to the first attempts to craft metal ornaments, tools, and weapons. All metals discovered from then until 1809 had relatively high densities; their heaviness was regarded as a singularly distinguishing criterion.

In 2002, Scottish toxicologist John Duffus reviewed the definitions used over the previous 60 years and concluded they were so diverse as to effectively render the term meaningless. Along with this finding, the heavy metal status of some metals is occasionally challenged on the grounds that they are too light, or are involved in biological processes, or rarely constitute environmental hazards. Examples include scandium (too light); vanadium to zinc (biological processes); and rhodium, indium, and osmium (too rare).

Chromium, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead have the greatest potential to cause harm on account of their extensive use, the toxicity of some of their combined or elemental forms, and their widespread distribution in the environment. Hexavalent chromium, for example, is highly toxic as are mercury vapour and many mercury compounds. These five elements have a strong affinity for sulfur; in the human body they usually bind, via thiol groups (SH), to enzymes responsible for controlling the speed of metabolic reactions. The resulting sulfur-metal bonds inhibit the proper functioning of the enzymes involved; human health deteriorates, sometimes fatally. Chromium (in its hexavalent form) and arsenic are carcinogens; cadmium causes a degenerative bone disease; and mercury and lead damage the central nervous system.

Other heavy metals noted for their potentially hazardous nature, usually as toxic environmental pollutants, include manganese (central nervous system damage); cobalt and nickel (carcinogens); copper, zinc, selenium and silver (endocrine disruption, congenital disorders, or general toxic effects in fish, plants, birds, or other aquatic organisms); tin, as organotin (central nervous system damage); antimony (a suspected carcinogen); and thallium (central nervous system damage).

Heavy metals can degrade air, water, and soil quality, and subsequently cause health issues in plants, animals, and people, when they become concentrated as a result of industrial activities. Common sources of heavy metals in this context include mining and industrial wastes; vehicle emissions; lead-acid batteries; fertilisers; paints; and treated timber; aging water supply infrastructure; and microplastics floating in the world's oceans. Recent examples of heavy metal contamination and health risks include the occurrence of Minamata disease, in Japan (19321968; lawsuits ongoing as of 2016); the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster in Brazil, and high levels of lead in drinking water supplied to the residents of Flint, Michigan, in the north-east of the United States.

Heavy metals condense in planets as a result of stellar evolution and destruction processes. Stars lose much of their mass when it is ejected late in their lifetimes, and sometimes thereafter as a result of a neutron star merger, thereby increasing the abundance of elements heavier than helium in the interstellar medium. When gravitational attraction causes this matter to coalesce and collapse new stars and planets are formed.

The winning of heavy metals from their ores is a complex function of ore type, the chemical properties of the metals involved, and the economics of various extraction methods. Different countries and refineries may use different processes, including those that differ from the brief outlines listed here.

The strength or durability of heavy metals such as chromium, iron, nickel, copper, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, and lead, as well as their alloys, makes them useful for the manufacture of artefacts such as tools, machinery, appliances, utensils, pipes, railroad tracks, buildings and bridges, automobiles, locks, furniture, ships, planes, coinage and jewellery. They are also used as alloying additives for enhancing the properties of other metals. Of the two dozen elements that have been used in the world's monetised coinage only two, carbon and aluminium, are not heavy metals. Gold, silver, and platinum are used in jewellery as are (for example) nickel, copper, indium, and cobalt in coloured gold. Low-cost jewellery and children's toys may be made, to a significant degree, of heavy metals such as chromium, nickel, cadmium, or lead.

Niche uses of heavy metals with high atomic numbers occur in diagnostic imaging, electron microscopy, and nuclear science. In diagnostic imaging, heavy metals such as cobalt or tungsten make up the anode materials found in x-ray tubes. In electron microscopy, heavy metals such as lead, gold, palladium, platinum, or uranium are used to make conductive coatings and to introduce electron density into biological specimens by staining, negative staining, or vacuum deposition. In nuclear science, nuclei of heavy metals such as chromium, iron, or zinc are sometimes fired at other heavy metal targets to produce superheavy elements; heavy metals are also employed as spallation targets for the production of neutrons or radioisotopes such as astatine (using lead, bismuth, thorium, or uranium in the latter case).


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782