Author: Samara Soghoian, MD, Medical Toxicology Fellow, Bellevue Hospital Center, New York University School of Medicine
Samara Soghoian is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Medical Toxicology and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine
Coauthor(s): Richard Sinert, DO, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, Research Director, State University of New York College of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Kings County Hospital Center
Some debate exists as to exactly what constitutes a "heavy metal" and which elements should properly be classified as such. Some authors have based the definition on atomic weight, others point to those metals with a specific gravity of greater than 4.0, or greater than 5.0. The actinides may or may not be included. Most recently, the term "heavy metal" has been used as a general term for those metals and semimetals with potential human or environmental toxicity. This definition includes a broad section of the periodic table under the rubric of interest.
Regardless of how one chooses to define the category, heavy metal toxicity is an uncommon diagnosis. With the possible exceptions of acute iron toxicity from intentional or unintentional ingestion and suspected lead exposure, emergency physicians will rarely be alerted to the possibility of metal exposure. Yet, if unrecognized or inappropriately treated, heavy metal exposure can result in significant morbidity and mortality. This article provides a brief overview of general principles in the diagnosis and management of metal toxicity. The Table reviews the typical presentation of the most commonly encountered metals and their treatment in summary form. It is not intended to guide clinical decision-making in specific cases.