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The Scientific Journal of IUPAC

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"Heavy metals" a meaningless term? (IUPAC Technical Report)

John H. Duffus1

1The Edinburgh Centre for Toxicology, 43 Mansionhouse Road, Edinburgh EH9 2JD, Scotland, United Kingdom

Citation Information: Pure and Applied Chemistry. Volume 74, Issue 5, Pages 793–807, ISSN (Online) 1365-3075, ISSN (Print) 0033-4545, DOI: 10.1351/pac200274050793, January 2009

Publication History

Published Online:

Over the past two decades, the term "heavy metals" has been widely used. It is often used as a group name for metals and semimetals (metalloids) that have been associated with contamination and potential toxicity or ecotoxicity. At the same time, legal regulations often specify a list of "heavy metals" to which they apply. Such lists differ from one set of regulations to another and the term is sometimes used without even specifying which "heavy metals" are covered. However, there is no authoritative definition to be found in the relevant literature. There is a tendency, unsupported by the facts, to assume that all so-called "heavy metals" and their compounds have highly toxic or ecotoxic properties. This has no basis in chemical or toxicological data. Thus, the term "heavy metals" is both meaningless and misleading. Even the term "metal" is commonly misused in both toxicological literature and in legislation to mean the pure metal and all the chemical species in which it may exist. This usage implies that the pure metal and all its compounds have the same physicochemical, biological, and toxicological properties, which is untrue. In order to avoid the use of the term "heavy metal", a new classification based on the periodic table is needed. Such a classification should reflect our understanding of the chemical basis of toxicity and allow toxic effects to be predicted.


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