Heavy Metals

Chemicals and Health

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals refer to the group of metals or their compounds associated with environmental contamination and toxicity. There is a list of heavy metals, including Pb, Hg, Cd, As, Ba, etc., being well studied with their hazardous effects on the environment and human health. These chemicals appear in our surrounding in different products, such as electronics, cosmetics, packaging materials, food containers, etc. However, heavy metals also reach the food chain and drinking water through contamination of various industrial wastes. Industries, such as textile manufacturing, pulp and paper production, mining, etc. are prone to produce hazardous wastes containing high levels of heavy metals. Around the world where clean production and waste management methods do not correspond to good environmental practices, migration of hazardous substances including heavy metals into the environment occurs. Heavy metals spread out very fast in the environment, from soils into water systems and further on into plants and living organisms. These metals have bioaccumulative property and can rise in concentrations in plants, animals and human with extended time exposure. The threats to human health caused by the heavy metal exposure can be divergent varying from developmental abnormalities to different types of cancers, endocrine disruption and even in high concentrations to death.

Internationally the concentrations and levels of those metals are regulated based on the national legislative mechanisms. However, there are international initiatives for improving the international control of heavy metals.

  • The UNEP Chemicals Branch includes various subjects under the chemicals management topics where issues related mercury, lead and cadmium are included as well.
  • Another UNEP initiative is the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
  • On 23 September 2006 a Side-event on heavy metals was organized and  reported by the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS), where challenges posed by mercury, lead and cadmium were discussed for developing international coordination and appropriate actions. 

Best Practice / Case Studies / Reports


Conventions / Legislations

german cooperationFederal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Developmentsupported by The State Government of North Rhine-Westphalia