Systemic impact of heavy metals and their role in cancer development: a review

Environ Monit Assess. 2023 May 30;195(6):766. doi: 10.1007/s10661-023-11399-z.


Heavy metals are well-recognised as environmental hazards due to their toxicity, environmental persistence, and bioaccumulation in living organisms. Human health is a crucial concern related to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems poisoned by harmful heavy metals. Most heavy metals pollute the air, water, and soil, which can be fatal to humans. Humans and other species can be exposed to heavy metals through the food chain if the metals oxidise or combine with other environmental elements (such as water, soil, or air). Their entry into the food chain assures interactions with biological macromolecules in living systems, including humans, resulting in undesirable outcomes. Human poisonings have typically been caused by mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic. The build-up of these metals in living organisms causes various harmful consequences on different organs and tissues. The gravitas of heavy metal toxicity regarding molecular impact and carcinogenesis needs in-depth understanding despite the plethora of available data. Hence, additionally, we attempt to elaborate on the multi-level impact of five heavy metals and emphasise their role in cancer development. The rationale of this essay is thus to understand the role of five heavy metals, viz., lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), arsenic (As), and mercury (Hg), in carcinogenesis. Heavy metals interfere with various biological functions, including proliferation, differentiation, repair of damage, and apoptosis. By comparing their modes of action, we see that these metals share common mechanisms for inducing toxicity, such as reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, antioxidant defence weakening, enzyme inactivation, and oxidative stress.

Keywords: Arsenic; Cadmium; Cancer; Chromium; Lead; Mercury; Systemic toxicity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arsenic* / analysis
  • Arsenic* / toxicity
  • Cadmium / analysis
  • Cadmium / toxicity
  • Carcinogenesis
  • Chromium / analysis
  • Ecosystem
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Mercury* / analysis
  • Metals, Heavy* / analysis
  • Metals, Heavy* / toxicity
  • Neoplasms* / chemically induced
  • Soil
  • Water


  • Cadmium
  • Arsenic
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Mercury
  • Chromium
  • Soil
  • Water