Heavy Metals: A Natural Health Boogeyman Without Clear Definition

The term “heavy metals” is a pseudo-scientific term that can cause dangerous confusion. This quick dive into terminology will help you understand the facts, how potentially toxic compounds affect your health, and actions to safeguard your health. Spoiler alert: it isn’t a detox diet.

heavy metals illustration
heavy metals illustration


  • There is no consensus for the definition of “heavy metal”
  • Many “metals” can be beneficial or harmful
  • Many researchers use the terms “heavy metals” and “potentially toxic compounds” in a statistically-interchangeable way.
  • One can have trace levels of “toxic” compounds without issue.
  • Heavy metal chelation supplements, protocols, and diets might remove beneficial compounds.


Toxicological research commonly uses the term “heavy metals” to describe compounds that represent potential harm both to biological organisms and the environment. Again, the ambiguity of “heavy metals” is characterized further such that it’s also unclear what constitutes a “toxic” heavy metal.

What are Metals?

Metals are elements that can conduct electricity, are malleable, are ductile, form cations, bind to other compounds through oxidative processes, and show visible luster.

What are “Heavy” Metals?

In a 2009 paper, John H. Duffus of the Edinburgh Centre for Toxicology composed an exhaustive survey of how the term “heavy metal” was being used by researchers. He found very little consistency. Below are some of the varying characteristic thresholds of “heavy metals” he found in his study:

  • Density > 4
  • Density > 5
  • Density > 6
  • Density > 3.5–5
  • Weight > sodium
  • Weight > 40, but Excluding Alkaline Metals
  • Metal with “high” atomic mass
  • Metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury
  • High relative mass, including copper, lead, or zinc
  • Rectangular block on the periodic table “flanked” by titanium, hafnium, and bismuth
  • Any metal with an atomic number > calcium
  • Any element with an atomic number > 20
  • Metal with an atomic number between 21 and 92

What are “Toxic” Heavy Metals

Certain compounds such as Zinc, Copper, and Manganese are known beneficiaries of human health. These elements help support critical biological functions in the human body, so much so they are sold as dietary supplements. Still, in high amounts, even these beneficial compounds can become toxic.


It’s clear that the term “heavy metals” is, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, misleading. Certain elements such as Manganese, Iron, or Selenium may fall within criteria to be labeled as “heavy” by researchers. I believe this ambiguity poses a threat to human health, illustrated by the many numbers of “heavy metal” chelation protocols, dietary supplements, and warnings I’ve seen over the years.

A self-confessed health nut, student of Computer Science, SEO nut, and 3D artist. Can be found marveling at Mother Nature’s genius when away from the computer.

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