An initiative of :

Wageningen University

Van Hall-Larenstein

Sitekeuring.NET Award> Topics > Food safety > Heavy metals

Heavy metals

Heavy metals are natural components of the Earth's crust. They cannot be degraded or destroyed. To a small extent they enter our bodies via food, drinking water and air. As trace elements, some heavy metals (e.g. copper, selenium, zinc) are essential to maintain the metabolism of the human body. However, at higher concentrations they can be toxic. Heavy metal poisoning could result, for instance, from drinking-water contamination (e.g. lead pipes), high ambient air concentrations near emission sources, or intake via the food chain.

Heavy metals are dangerous because they tend to bioaccumulate. Bioaccumulation means an increase in the concentration of a chemical in a biological organism over time, compared to the chemical's concentration in the environment. Compounds accumulate in living things any time they are taken up and stored faster than they are broken down (metabolized) or excreted.

Still, food poisoning from heavy metals is very rare and in most cases only occurs after environmental pollution. The most well-known example of such an environmental pollution occurred in Japan between 1932-55.

Since 1932 sewage containing mercury was released by Chisso's chemicals works into Minimata Bay in Japan. The mercury accumulates in sea creatures, leading eventually to mercury poisoning in the population. In 1952, the first incidents of mercury poisoning appear in the population of Minimata Bay in Japan, caused by consumption of fish polluted with mercury. In total 500 fatalities were recorded in the 1950s. Since then, Japan has had the strictest environmental laws in the industrialised world and the disease is known as the Minamata Syndrome

Toxicity symptoms of the following heavy metals are included :

Sources : ,




European Masters Degree in Food Studies - an Educational Journey

Master in Food Safety Law

The website is an initiative of the food technology and food safety programmes of Wageningen University, The Netherlands and its partner universities.