Heavy Metals

Lead is a highly toxic substance to young children. Lead can adversely affect nearly every system of a young person’s developing body, including the brain, kidneys and nervous system. Children are most susceptible because lead infects their small bodies as their systems are still rapidly developing. Pregnant women also need to be concerned.


Boston’s Tobin bridge shed flakes of lead paint into the environment until the hazardous paint was removed in 1979.

Lead poisoning is usually caused through ingestion: young people inadvertently poison themselves by putting their hands or other contaminated objects in their mouths. The major sources of lead exposure are old paint chips and lead contaminated dust as a result of houses painted with lead paint, as they often were prior to its outlaw in 1978. Children in minority groups are affected by lead poisoning at higher rates.

Lead poisoning is preventable, by removing lead from children’s environments. Take action to ensure that your home is not contaminated. The Massachusetts lead law protects families with children age six years and under. Learn more about your rights by calling (800) 532-9571.

If your child has been diagnosed with lead poisoning or another heavy metal exposure, you may speak with a doctor at the Pediatric Environmental Health Clinic (PEHC) at 617-355-8177. The PEHC is located at Boston Children’s Hospital. For more information or to learn how you can have your children or home tested for lead, consult the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in your state or the Center for Disease Prevention.

Center for Disease Control
Rhode Island

Mercury poisoning can affect the brain, nervous system, and eyesight. Many lakes, ponds and rivers contain mercury, often as a result of manufacturing contamination. This mercury is absorbed by fish, and people who eat the fish thus ingest mercury. Like lead, mercury is not detectable to the eye, so one must take other action to prevent contamination.

Pregnant women need to be most careful about their exposure to mercury. Young children are also more susceptible to poisoning. It is advisable that everyone, pregnant women especially, limit their intake of fish.

Consult the articles below for more on the new guidelines and for information about which types of fish are more or less contaminated.

E.P.A. Fish Advisories

Other sources of mercury in the environment and the home include medical and cooking thermometers, weather thermometers and barometers, certain types of light bulbs and some household appliances. It is important to know what in your home and environment contains mercury.

Improper disposal of household products that contain mercury contributes to the high levels of mercury in the environment. It is therefore important to be aware of proper disposal methods for mercury in your area.

Broken mercury thermometers should be handled with care. (Digital thermometers and thermometers with a red liquid inside do not contain mercury.)
If a mercury thermometer breaks:

  • Do not touch the mercury with your bare hands.
  • Do not use a vacuum cleaner to clean it up as this will only spread the mercury around.
  • Do not throw mercury, or any mercury-stained cloth in the trash. If you do, you will put the toxin back into the environment.
  • Use the edge of a piece of cardboard or a thick glove to push the mercury into a sealable plastic bag and place it in a non-breakable plastic container.

The following sites provide extensive additional information on products that contain mercury and their proper disposal.

Massachusetts Mercury Resources

Arsenic is used in some industrial processes and also as a rodent killer, and thus in some cases it is present in the environment. Arsenic in a high enough dose is lethal, but it has also been discovered that repeated exposures over time to small amounts of arsenic, often through workplace contamination or polluted drinking water, can cause a variety of health problems. Some visible signs include skin and nail discoloration.

Please consult the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry site below for more information on arsenic.

ToxFAQs for Arsenic

More Information
For further websites pertaining to Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Radon and other types of potentially toxic elements, see the United States Geological Survey and their recommended websites.

USGS National Analysis of Trace Elements