In an emergency, patients should call 911 or a poison control hotline (800) 222-1222. The treatment for most heavy metal poisoning is chelation therapy. A chelating agent specific to the metal involved is given orally, intramuscularly, or intravenously. The three most common chelating agents are edetate calcium disodium, dimercaprol (BAL), and penicillamine. Succimer (DMSA) is used for children suffering from lead poisoning. The chelating agent encircles and binds the metal in the body’s tissues, forming a complex that is then released from the tissue and travels in the bloodstream.
The complex is filtered out of the blood by the kidneys and excreted in the urine. This process may be lengthy and painful, and typically requires hospitalization. Chelation therapy is effective in treating lead, mercury, and arsenic poisoning, but is not useful in treating cadmium poisoning. To date, no treatment has been proven effective for cadmium poisoning. In cases of acute mercury or arsenic ingestion, vomiting may be induced. Washing out the stomach (gastric lavage) may also be useful. The patient may also require treatment such as intravenous fluids for complications of poisoning such as shock, anemia, and kidney failure.
The chelation process can only halt further effects of the poisoning; it cannot reverse neurological damage already sustained.
Because exposure to heavy metals is often an occupational hazard, protective clothing and respirators should be provided and worn on the job. Protective clothing should then be left at the work site and not worn home, where it could carry toxic dust to family members. Industries are urged to reduce or replace the heavy metals in their processes wherever possible. Exposure to environmental sources of lead, including lead-based paints, plumbing fixtures, vehicle exhaust, and contaminated soil, should be reduced or eliminated.
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