Toxic Mechanisms of Five Heavy Metals: Mercury, Lead, Chromium, Cadmium, and Arsenic

Front Pharmacol. 2021 Apr 13;12:643972. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2021.643972. eCollection 2021.


The industrial activities of the last century have caused massive increases in human exposure to heavy metals. Mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic have been the most common heavy metals that induced human poisonings. Here, we reviewed the mechanistic action of these heavy metals according to the available animal and human studies. Acute or chronic poisonings may occur following exposure through water, air, and food. Bioaccumulation of these heavy metals leads to a diversity of toxic effects on a variety of body tissues and organs. Heavy metals disrupt cellular events including growth, proliferation, differentiation, damage-repairing processes, and apoptosis. Comparison of the mechanisms of action reveals similar pathways for these metals to induce toxicity including ROS generation, weakening of the antioxidant defense, enzyme inactivation, and oxidative stress. On the other hand, some of them have selective binding to specific macromolecules. The interaction of lead with aminolevulinic acid dehydratase and ferrochelatase is within this context. Reactions of other heavy metals with certain proteins were discussed as well. Some toxic metals including chromium, cadmium, and arsenic cause genomic instability. Defects in DNA repair following the induction of oxidative stress and DNA damage by the three metals have been considered as the cause of their carcinogenicity. Even with the current knowledge of hazards of heavy metals, the incidence of poisoning remains considerable and requires preventive and effective treatment. The application of chelation therapy for the management of metal poisoning could be another aspect of heavy metals to be reviewed in the future.

Keywords: ROS; acute poisoning; chronic poisoning; heavy metals; mechanistic action; oxidative stress.

Publication types

  • Review