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Heavy metal (chemistry)

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A heavy metal is a member of an ill-defined subset of elements that exhibit metallic properties, which would mainly include the transition metals, some metalloids, lanthanides, and actinides. Many different definitions have been proposed—some based on density, some on atomic number or atomic weight, and some on chemical properties or toxicity.[1] The term heavy metal has been called a "misinterpretation" in an IUPAC technical report due to the contradictory definitions and its lack of a "coherent scientific basis".[1] There is an alternative term toxic metal, for which no consensus of exact definition exists either. As discussed below, depending on context, heavy metal can include elements lighter than carbon and can exclude some of the heaviest metals. Heavy metals occur naturally in the ecosystem with large variations in concentration. In modern times, anthropogenic sources of heavy metals, i.e. pollution, have been introduced to the ecosystem. Waste-derived fuels are especially prone to contain heavy metals so they should be a central concern in a consideration of their use.

Relationship to living organisms Edit

Living organisms require varying amounts of "heavy metals." Iron, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc are required by humans. Excessive levels can be damaging to the organism. Other heavy metals such as mercury, plutonium, and lead are toxic metals that have no known vital or beneficial effect on organisms[citation needed], and their accumulation over time in the bodies of animals can cause serious illness. Certain elements that are normally toxic are, for certain organisms or under certain conditions, beneficial. Examples include vanadium, tungsten, and even cadmium.[2]

Heavy metal pollution Edit

Motivations for controlling heavy metal concentrations in gas streams are diverse. Some of them are dangerous to health or to the environment (e.g. Hg, Cd, As, Pb, Cr), some may cause corrosion (e.g. Zn, Pb), some are harmful in other ways (e.g. Arsenic may pollute catalysts). Within the European community the 13 elements of highest concern are As, Cd, Co, Cr, Cu, Hg, Mn, Ni, Pb, Sn, and Tl, the emissions of which are regulated in waste incinerators. Some of these elements are actually necessary for humans in minute amounts (Co, Cu, Cr, Mn, Ni) while others are carcinogenic or toxic, affecting, among others, the central nervous system (Mn, Hg, Pb, As), the kidneys or liver (Hg, Pb, Cd, Cu) or skin, bones, or teeth (Ni, Cd, Cu, Cr).[3]

Heavy metal pollution can arise from many sources but most commonly arises from the purification of metals, e.g., the smelting of copper and the preparation of nuclear fuels. Electroplating is the primary source of chromium and cadmium. Through precipitation of their compounds or by ion exchange into soils and muds, heavy metal pollutants can localize and lay dormant. Unlike organic pollutants, heavy metals do not decay and thus pose a different kind of challenge for remediation. One of the largest problems associated with the persistence of heavy metals is the potential for bioaccumulation and biomagnification causing heavier exposure for some organisms than is present in the environment alone. Coastal fish (such as the smooth toadfish) and seabirds (such as the Atlantic Puffin) are often monitored for the presence of such contaminants.


Medicine Edit

In medical usage, heavy metals are loosely defined[1] and include all toxic metals irrespective of their atomic weight: "heavy metal poisoning" can possibly include excessive amounts of iron, manganese, aluminium, mercury, cadmium, or beryllium (the fourth lightest element) or such a semimetal as arsenic. This definition excludes bismuth, the heaviest of approximately stable elements, because of its low toxicity.

Minamata disease results from mercury poisoning, and Itai-itai disease from cadmium poisoning.


See alsoEdit

References Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 John H. Duffus ""Heavy metals" a meaningless term? (IUPAC Technical Report)" Pure and Applied Chemistry, 2002, Vol. 74, pp. 793-807. DOI:10.1351/pac200274050793
  2. Lane TW, Morel FM. A biological function for cadmium in marine diatoms.
  3. Ron Zevenhoven, Pia Kilpinen: Control of Pollutants in Flue Gases and Fuel Gases. TKK, Espoo 2001.
category Poisoning


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