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Toxic Heavy Metals and Occupational Cancer Risks

By Jonathan Sharp
Published: February 9, 2022
Key Takeaways

Exposure to heavy metal toxicity is a serious risk for industrial workers. Knowing how their long-term health effects is the first step to keeping them safe.

Caption: Welder working in an automotive factory Source: Thossaphol / iStock

Heavy metals are still in prevalent use across the United States. For that reason, industrial workers and employers need to be well informed about the negative health consequences of exposure to these elements - including the risk of developing occupational cancers.

Heavy Metals in Industrial Settings

The toxicity of heavy metals depends on numerous factors, including:

  • The amount or concentration of the substance
  • The route of exposure (inhalation, dermal asborption, ingestion)
  • Personal factors such as age and genetic predispositions

Exposure to hazardous levels of heavy metals is uncommon in daily life, but a serious concern in industrial facilities. It can occur in various types of industrial operations:

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  • Refineries
  • Power plants
  • Nuclear power stations
  • Plastic manufacturing
  • Wood preservation
  • Paper processing

While trace amounts of certain heavy metals can be benign or even beneficial to a person's health, exposure to larger concentrations can result in accute or chronic health effects.

Cumulative exposure is also a concern. While some harmful substances can be flushed out of the system, heavy metals will remain in the body and accumulate over time. Because of this, regular exposure to even small amounts of heavy metal particles or fumes can eventually lead to the development of various types of cancer.

(Find out How to Reduce the Risk of Occupational Cancer)

Manganese and Welding Fumes

Welding is a special concern when it comes to heavy metal toxicity. It's an activity that produces a large amount of metal fumes and frequent exposure to these fumes can cause lung, urinary tract, and laryngeal cancer.

Exposure to welding fumes can also cause lung damage, along with fevers, stomach ulcers, kidney damage, and damage to the nervous system. The immediate effect of these fumes can include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, chest pains, shortness of breath, changes in blood pressure, and dizziness.

Welding fumes contain the heavy metal manganese, which is a serious concern for workers. Although manganese is beneficial to the body in small concentrations, excessive quantities can take a heavy toll on a worker's healt. Moreover, inhaling manganese allows it to bypass the body's normal defense mechanisms, causing damage to the lungs, liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

(Learn more in What You Need to Know About Welding Apparel)

Other Carcinogenic Heavy Metals

Safety professionals and employers overseeing industrial workplaces sould make sure they're familiar with the following carcinogenic heavy metals. They are the ones industrial workers are most likely to encounter on the job.

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Arsenic

Arsenic’s compounds have a wide range of uses, featuring in pesticides and enamels to the pigment production and glass manufacturing. Unfortunately, that versatility means that it poses a health risk across a variety of industries.

Cancers associated with arsenic exposure:

  • Bladder
  • Skin
  • Lung
  • Kidney
  • Liver

(Learn about Protective Clothing for Agricultural Workers and Pesticide Handlers)

Cadmium

This heavy metal is part of numerous industrial activities, such as the production of alloys, pigments, and batteries. It is also used for manufacturing solar cells, electroplating, and silver soldering. Construction workers who do demolition work can also be exposed to dust containing cadmium.

Cancers associated with cadmium exposure:

  • Lung
  • Kidney
  • Prostate

Beryllium

Numerous occupational groups are regularly exposed to beryllium, including foundry workers, machinists, furnace tenders, welders, and metal fabricators. It is found in the defense, aerospace, ceramics, medical, telecommunications, and electronics industries.

Beryllium exposure is primarily associated with lung cancer.

Mercury

Mercury is a concern for chemical laboratories, battery production, gold and silver extraction, and of course, mercury mining.

Mercy is a highly dangerous heavy metal. It can be fatal even in small doses.

Cancers associated with mercury exposure:

  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Gastric

Lead

Lead is a major concern for construction workers and smelter operators. It is a highly potent heavy metal, even in trace amounts.

Cancers associated with lead exposure:

  • Lung
  • Stomach
  • Bladder

Hexavalent Chromium

The derivatives stemming from chromium are calcium chromate, lead chromate, chromium trioxide, strontium chromate, and zinc chromate - all of which are human carcinogens.

Cancers associated with chromium exposure:

  • Lung
  • Paranasal sinuses
  • Nasal cavity

Mitigating Heavy Metal Risks

Education is the first step to managing occupational cancer risks in industrial workplaces. Employers are responsible for informing and training their employees on the risks associated with using, handling, and processing heavy metals.

Training should be relevant and cover a variety of topics, such as:

  • The toxicity of the materials found on the jobsite
  • Proper use of personal protective equipment
  • Which respirators to use, when to use them, and how to ensure they are providing optimal protection
  • Hygiene, sanitation, and housekeeping practices to minimize the risk of exposure
  • How to avoid bringing heavy metal particles into the break room or home after work

Employers are also responsible for providing all the PPE that are required to protect workers from workplace hazards. In the case of heavy metal toxicity, this will primarily consist of respirators to prevent inhalation exposure and gloves and other protective clothing to prevent dermal absorption.

The effects of toxic heavy metal exposure are not always immediately apparent. Although their onset can be gradual, they are no less serious because of it. However, with the right hazard control methods in place, industrial workers can remain safe even while working with these major hazards.

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Written by Jonathan Sharp

Profile Picture of Jonathan Sharp

Jonathan Sharp is the CFO of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, focused on helping workers and communities who have been unknowingly exposed to life threatening hazards.

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