Some metals, such as copper and manganese, are essential to life and play irreplaceable roles in, e.g., the functioning of important enzyme systems. Other metals are xenobiotics, i.e., they have no useful role in human physiology and, even worse, as in the case of lead, may be toxic even at trace levels of exposure.
Even those metals that are essential, however, have the potential to turn harmful at very high levels of exposure, a reflection of a very basic tenet of toxicology – “the dose makes the poison.”
Toxic metal exposure may lead to serious risks to human health. As a result of the extensive use of toxic metals and their compounds in industry and consumer products, these agents have been widely disseminated in the environment. Because metals are not biodegradable, they can persist in the environment and produce a variety of adverse effects. Exposure to metals can lead to damage in a variety of organ systems and, in some cases, metals also have the potential to be carcinogenic.
Even though the importance of metals as environmental health hazards is now widely appreciated, the specific mechanisms by which metals produce their adverse effects have yet to be fully elucidated. The unifying factor in determining toxicity and carcinogenicity for most metals is the generation of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. Metal-mediated formation of free radicals causes various modifications to nucleic acids, enhanced lipid peroxidation, and altered calcium and sulfhydryl homeostasis. Whilst copper, chromium, and cobalt undergo redox-cycling reactions, for metals such as cadmium and nickel the primary route for their toxicity is depletion of glutathione and bonding to sulfhydryl groups of proteins.
This chapter attempts to show that the toxic effects of different metallic compounds may be manifested in the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems. The knowledge of health effects due to metal exposure is necessary for practising physicians, and should be assessed by inquiring about present and past occupational history and environmental exposure.