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Common Heavy Metals in Water & How to Remove Them

Scott Winfield
Written by Scott Winfield
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The most common heavy metals found in water are cadmium, manganese, arsenic, lead, and copper. In small amounts, they don’t pose too much of a problem. However, in large quantities, they can lead to serious heaCommon Heavy Metals in Water & How to Remove Themlth issues.

Common Heavy Metals in Water & How to Remove Them

So, let’s examine each of these heavy metals closely and the issues they can cause when they’re present in drinking water. We’ll also show you how to test your water for heavy metals and the best methods for removing them.

5 Most Common Heavy Metals in Water

Heavy Metals Toxicity
Heavy Metals Toxicity

The five most common heavy metals found in water are cadmium, manganese, arsenic, lead, and copper.

All five of these metals appear on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of chemicals of public health concern.

Some of the telltale signs of heavy metal contamination in water are discoloration and a metallic or salty taste. However, some heavy metals, like lead, are undetectable by taste or color.

Let’s take a look at the 5 most common heavy metals that are found in water.

1. Cadmium

Cadmium
Cadmium

Cadmium is naturally found in soil and rocks. Over time, erosion and weathering can dissolve it and release it into groundwater sources, allowing cadmium to enter domestic and commercial water supplies.

Cadmium contamination can also occur due to the improper disposal of industrial waste from activities like metal processing, mining, and battery manufacturing. It can also be found in the runoff from certain phosphate fertilizers, which leaches into water sources.

If your drinking water contains high levels of cadmium, it can lead to issues like vomiting and diarrhea. If you experience long-term exposure to cadmium, it can cause more serious issues such as kidney damage, weakened bones, and high blood pressure.

2. Manganese

Manganese

Manganese is a trace mineral that’s naturally present in the human body, but it’s also a transition metal.

Common industrial uses for Manganese include clear glass production, deoxidizing of steel, and reducing gasoline’s octane rating. However, Manganese is most commonly used as a crucial alloy in steel production.

Like cadmium, manganese can enter water supplies through rock and soil erosion. Additionally, it contaminates water as a byproduct of mining operations, battery production, agricultural practices, and stormwater runoff.

Adults and children who suffer prolonged exposure to Manganese (especially through drinking water) may develop problems with memory, attention, and cognitive skills. In infants, it can lead to life-long disabilities.

To learn more about manganese in water, refer to our article on how to remove manganese from water.

3. Arsenic

Arsenic in Water
Arsenic

Arsenic is another natural element that is present in several different compounds. For instance, organic compounds such as groundwater and soils contain arsenic naturally.

While organic forms of arsenic aren’t toxic to humans, inorganic forms are. Inorganic arsenic compounds are associated with various types of cancer, higher blood pressure, and increased risk of diabetes.

Commercially, the use of arsenic occurs primarily in the electronic industry, as semiconductor devices rely on arsine gas and gallium arsenide.

Arsenic can be removed from water using treatment methods such as distillation and water filtration. For more information on how to remove arsenic from well water, check out our comprehensive guide.

4. Lead

Lead in Drinking Water
Lead

Lead is used to produce a wide range of products, from paint to gasoline, and it’s one of the most common contaminants found in water. Typically, lead contamination occurs when old pipes leach lead into a home’s water supply. This is most prevalent in areas with highly acidic water as it corrodes pipes and increases lead leaching.

Lead Poisoning
Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

In children, drinking lead-contaminated water can lead to learning disabilities, hyperactivity, a decreased intelligence quotient (IQ), and nervous system dysfunction.

In adults, lead can result in reproductive issues and kidney or heart problems.

To find out how to remove lead from water, take a look at our expert guide.

5. Copper

Copper in Water
Copper

Minerals like bornite and chalcopyrite are the richest natural sources of copper. In drinking water, however, household plumbing is the most common source of copper.

The effects of excess copper are similar to those caused by other heavy metals. In the short term, drinking too much copper-contaminated water may cause gastrointestinal issues.

Long-term exposure to copper can result in kidney or liver damage. If the copper levels are very high, it can cause fatality.

What Do Heavy Metals Do To Your Body?

Different heavy metals can affect your body in varying ways. While humans need small amounts of metals in the body to stay healthy, large amounts can have catastrophic consequences.

Research shows that the accumulation of heavy metals in the body can wreak havoc on the following human organs and systems:

  • Musculoskeletal system
  • Circulatory system
  • Metabolic system
  • Lungs
  • Brain
  • Digestive/gastrointestinal system
  • Kidneys
  • Liver

The symptoms of an underlying condition caused by heavy metal poisoning can vary greatly, and, in most cases, the length of exposure also correlates with the severity of the symptoms.

People with excess heavy metals in the body can experience symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to severe skin issues. In children, heavy metal exposure can affect mental health and intelligence.

How Do You Test For Heavy Metals in Water?

Clearly, if your drinking water contains high levels of heavy metals, you need to address the issue. So, how do you tell if your water does contain large amounts of heavy metals?

Well, there are two main ways to do this:

DIY Test Kits

The quickest and easiest way to test your water for heavy metals is to use a DIY test kit. These kits are affordable and can be bought online or at various retail stores.

DIY test kits come in many forms, so make sure you read the instructions carefully before using one. Generally, the test involves dipping a strip of paper into a container of water and waiting for it to change color. Then, you compare the color to a chart to determine if your water is contaminated with heavy metals.

The main downside of these test kits is that they don’t tend to be very accurate. Usually, they tell you if heavy metals are present or not but don’t tell you at what levels they’re present.

Lab Tests

If you want accurate results, you’ll need to buy a lab test kit. Again, these can easily be bought online and at many retail stores.

With these kits, you’re required to collect a water sample and send it to a certified lab for testing.

After a few days, you receive a detailed analysis of your water and the heavy metals it contains. The results will also show you the contamination levels for each heavy metal.

Just bear in mind that these kits are more expensive than DIY ones, and you have to wait longer for the results. Still, it’s well worth it for the accuracy they provide.

How Do You Remove Heavy Metals from Water?

One of the most common methods for removing heavy metals from water is distillation.

During this process, water is heated until it evaporates, cooled until it returns to a liquid state, and then collected. This leaves you with purified water free from heavy metals.

However, distillation is very time-consuming and inefficient in producing large volumes of purified water.

So, to remove heavy metals from your drinking water, it’s best to use a water filter system.

Best Water Filters For Heavy Metals

The best filtration processes for removing heavy metals from water include reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and activated carbon.

All of these filtration processes work by separating metal particles from water.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis
Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis uses a multistep process to remove metal contaminants. As the name suggests, Reverse Osmosis works by reversing the natural process of osmosis.

Osmosis is a passive process, while reverse osmosis relies on high pressure to do its job. With the use of pressure, it forces water through a semi-permeable membrane that contains tiny pores.

These pores trap larger heavy metal particles while allowing smaller water particles to pass through.

This means the water that leaves the system has far fewer heavy metal particles than when it entered the system.

So, which RO system should you get for heavy metals?

Well, we recommend the Waterdrop G3P800 or the Aquatru Countertop RO System. These reverse osmosis systems can both remove up to 99% of heavy metal from water, making them two of the most effective units on the market.

Ion Exchange Filters

Ion Exchange Filters
Ion Exchange Filters

Ion exchange filters are another highly effective way to remove heavy metals from water. Here’s how they work:

  1. First, the contaminated water flows into the filter housing.
  2. It comes into contact with the filter resin, which contains many resin beads. These beads are designed to attract heavy metal ions like mercury or lead.
  3. As the water flows through, the heavy metal ions are attracted to the beads and become trapped in the resin.
  4. The heavy metal ions are replaced with harmless ions like sodium that are already attached to the resin.
  5. As a result, the heavy metal ions are left behind, and the purified water flows into your home.

Activated Carbon Filters

Activated Carbon Filter
Activated Carbon Filters

Activated carbon filters use a process called adsorption to remove metals. In simple terms, adsorption is the adhesion of water molecules to a solid surface to create a thin film. While not all adsorption filters remove heavy metals, some do.

When choosing an activated carbon filter to remove heavy metals, there are a few factors to consider, such as:

  • Surface area: Look for an activated carbon filter with a large surface area. Simply put, the bigger the filter’s surface area, the more heavy metal particles it can trap.
  • Pore size: Generally, activated carbon filters with pore sizes smaller than 1 micron are the most effective at removing heavy metals. If the pore sizes are much bigger than this, heavy metal particles may still be able to pass through.
  • Specific design: Look for an activated carbon filter specifically designed to remove heavy metals. This should ensure its effectiveness.

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Scott Winfield
Scott Winfield
My name is Scott Winfield and researching and writing about water filters and other strategies to purify water has become my full time passion in recent years. I'm glad that you found our site and you can look forward to authoritative and well researched content here to help you get the best in water.
7 Comments
  1. Hi Scott,
    I’m getting buried with all the information on the different water purification systems so looking for some options. My house makes it more difficult because the main water entry point is in front of our living room window which is next to out front door. From the water entry point the pipes go under the floor to the two bathrooms, one kitchen and one laundry in the garage; just two of us live here.
    Note: I’m taking Chelation treatments for my high lead and copper, and just acceptable mercury level in my blood. My wife does NOT want a large system in front of the big living room window so any system would have to be moved to the side of the house and be outdoors here in St Petersburg Fl.
    Since the system has to be outdoors I guess a RO system will not work, yes/no? So besides moving to another home what do you suggest?

    1. Hi Jack, there are some things to note in response to your questions. First, almost always, you’ll find that whole house systems are not RO-based systems. RO is mainly used as point of use in the house, like under sink or on counter top. There is no problem with putting a system out in the elements outside, many are built for such a life. It’s unfortunately where your main water entry is positioned. It is possible for a plumber to position a system outside and carry the pipes to the side, like you mentioned. Another option is to pick a more slender system, especially since it’s just a 2-person household and then get creative with some bushes/shrubs or otherwise try to “hide” the system where it is. I hope this helps and feel free to e-mail us for more questions or specific system recommends. Thank you for reading.

  2. It stood out to me when you mentioned that cadmium is quite common in water. My wife and I are wanting to have a well installed on our property so that we can have access to our own water. We will have to get a good filtration system so that we don’t have to worry about finding cadmium in our water.

    1. Hello Jasmin, you could start by asking if there’s any documentation or manual that accompanies the system. That should, at a minimum, have some specifications or other information about what the system is intended to do and how well it works. Next, you can speak to your installer or where you purchased the system. As well, you can contact Culligan directly to ask for this information.

  3. If heavy metals can be removed by ion exchange, than won’t a water softener (which also uses ion exchange) also remove heavy metals? Or at least the ones that form positive ions?

    In particular, I’m interested in removing Thallium. I plan to use an RO filter for drinking water, but I’d like to know if a water softener will remove (at least most of) the Thallium from the water I use for showering, etc.

    1. Hi Ed, ion exchange can indeed remove thallium, but not all ion exchange systems are effective and it depends on their system. Therefore, you’ll need to be careful to review the method the manufacturer uses in the system you’re considering to make sure it will do the job.

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