Toxicity is the degree to which a substance can damage an organism. Toxicity can refer to the effect on a whole organism, such as an animal, bacterium, or plant, as well as the effect on a substructure of the organism, such as a cell (cytotoxicity) or an organ such as the liver (hepatotoxicity). By extension, the word may be metaphorically used to describe toxic effects on larger and more complex groups, such as the family unit or society at large.
A central concept of toxicology is that effects are dose-dependent; even water can lead to water intoxication when taken in too many doses, whereas for even a very toxic substance such as snake venom there is a dose below which there is no detectable toxic effect. Toxicity is species-specific, lending cross-species analysis problematic. Newer paradigms and metrics are evolving to bypass animal testing, while maintaining the concept of toxicity endpoints.
Types of toxicity
There are generally three types of toxic entities; chemical, biological, and physical:
- Chemical toxicants include inorganic substances such as lead, mercury, asbestos, hydrofluoric acid, and chlorine gas, organic compounds such as methyl alcohol, most medications, and poisons from living things.
- Biological toxicants include bacteria and viruses that can induce disease in living organisms. Biological toxicity can be difficult to measure because the “threshold dose” may be a single organism. Theoretically one virus, bacterium or worm can reproduce to cause a serious infection. However, in a host with an intact immune system the inherent toxicity of the organism is balanced by the host’s ability to fight back; the effective toxicity is then a combination of both parts of the relationship. A similar situation is also present with other types of toxic agents.
- Physical toxicants are substances that, due to their physical nature, interfere with biological processes. Examples include coal dust and asbestos fibers, both of which can ultimately be fatal if inhaled.
A metal is an element, compound, or alloy that is a good conductor of both electricity and heat. Metals are usually malleable, ductile and shiny, that is they reflect most of incident light.In a metal, atoms readily lose electrons to form positive ions (cations). Those ions are surrounded by de-localized electrons, which are responsible for the conductivity. The solid thus produced is held together by electrostatic interactions between the ions and the electron cloud, which are called metallic bonds.
Metals are sometimes described as an arrangement of positive ions surrounded by a sea of delocalized electrons. Metals occupy the bulk of the periodic table, while non-metallic elements can only be found on its right-hand side (with the exception of hydrogen). A diagonal line, drawn from boron (B) to polonium (Po), separates the metals from the nonmetals. Most elements on this line are metalloids, sometimes called semiconductors. This is because these elements exhibit electrical properties common to both conductors and insulators. Elements to the lower left of this division line are called metals, while elements to the upper right of the division line are called nonmetals.
An alternative definition of metal refers to the band theory. If one fills the energy bands of a material with available electrons and ends up with a top band partly filled then the material is a metal. This definition opens up the category for metallic polymers and other organic metals. These synthetic materials often have the characteristic silvery gray reflectiveness (luster) of elemental metals.
A microorganism (“organism”; also spelled micro-organism, micro organism or microörganism) or microbe is a microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell (unicellular), cell clusters, or multicellular relatively complex organisms. The study of microorganisms is called microbiology, a subject that began with Anton van Leeuwenhoek‘s discovery of microorganisms in 1675, using a microscope of his own design.
Microorganisms are very diverse; they include bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa; microscopic plants (green algae); and animals such as rotifers and planarians. Some microbiologists also include viruses, but others consider these as nonliving.Most microorganisms are unicellular (single-celled), but this is not universal, since some multicellular organisms are microscopic, while some unicellular protists and bacteria, like Thiomargarita namibiensis, are macroscopic and visible to the naked eye.
Microorganisms live in all parts of the biosphere where there is liquid water, including soil, hot springs, on the ocean floor, high in the atmosphere and deep inside rocks within the Earth’s crust. Microorganisms are critical to nutrient recycling in ecosystems as they act as decomposers. As some microorganisms can fix nitrogen, they are a vital part of the nitrogen cycle, and recent studies indicate that airborne microbes may play a role in precipitation and weather.
Microbes are also exploited by people in biotechnology, both in traditional food and beverage preparation, and in modern technologies based on genetic engineering. However, pathogenic microbes are harmful, since they invade and grow within other organisms, causing diseases that kill humans, other animals and plants.
Toxic metals are metals that form poisonous soluble compounds and have biological role, i.e. are not essential minerals, or are in the wrong form. Often heavy metals are thought as synonymous, but lighter metals also have toxicity, such as beryllium, and not all heavy metals are particularly toxic, and some are essential, such as iron. The definition may also include trace elements when considered in abnormally high, toxic doses. A difference is that there is no beneficial dose for a toxic metal with no biological role.
Toxic metals sometimes imitate the action of an essential element in the body, interfering with the metabolic process to cause illness. Many metals, particularly heavy metals are toxic, but some heavy metals are essential, and some, such as bismuth, have a low toxicity. Most often the definition includes at least cadmium, lead, mercury and the radioactive metals.Metalloids (arsenic, polonium) may be included in the definition. Radioactive metals have both radiological toxicity and chemical toxicity. Metals in an oxidation state abnormal to the body may also become toxic: chromium(III) is an essential trace element, but chromium(VI) is a carcinogen.
Toxicity is a function of solubility. Insoluble compounds as well as the metallic forms often exhibit negligible toxicity. The toxicity of any metal depends on its ligands. In some cases, organometallic forms, such as dimethyl mercury and tetraethyl lead, can be extremely toxic. In other cases, organometallic derivatives are less toxic such as the cobaltocenium cation.
Decontamination for toxic metals is different from organic toxins: because toxic metals are elements, they cannot be destroyed. Toxic metals may be made insoluble or collected, possibly by the aid of chelating agents.
Toxic metals can bioaccumulate in the body and in the food chain. Therefore, a common characteristic of toxic metals is the chronic nature of their toxicity. This is particularly notable with radioactive heavy metals such as thorium, which imitates calcium to the point of being incorporated into human bone, although similar health implications are found in lead or mercury poisoning. The exceptions to this are barium and aluminium, which can be removed efficiently by the kidneys.
Toxic heavy metals
- Antimony (a metalloid)
- Arsenic (see arsenic poisoning) is a metalloid
- Cadmium – cadmium poisoning
- Lead – lead poisoning
- Mercury – mercury poisoning
Aluminium has no biological role and its classification into toxic metals is controversial. Significant toxic effects and accumulation to tissues have been observed in renally impaired patients.However, individuals with healthy kidneys can be exposed to large amounts of aluminium with no ill effects. Thus, aluminium is not considered dangerous to persons with normal elimination capacity.
Trace elements with toxicity
- Chromium as hexavalent Cr(VI)
- Nickel – nickel salts are carcinogenic
- Copper – copper toxicity
- Zinc – zinc toxicity
- Iron – iron poisoning
- Fluorine–fluoride poisoning
Some heavy nonmetals may be erroneously called “metals”, because they have some metallic properties.
Toxicity of some metals on micro organisms
In engineering, sulfate-reducing bacteria can create problems when metal structures are exposed to sulfate-containing water: Interaction of water and metal creates a layer of molecular hydrogen on the metal surface; sulfate-reducing bacteria then oxidize the hydrogen while creating hydrogen sulfide, which contributes to corrosion.
Some sulfate-reducing bacteria play a role in the anaerobic oxidation of methane:
CH4 + SO42– → HCO3– + HS– + H2O
An important fraction of the methane formed by methanogens below the seabed is oxidized by sulfate-reducing bacteria in the transition zone separating the methanogenesis from the sulfate reduction activity in the sediments. This process is also considered a major sink for sulfate in marine sediments.
In hydrofracturing fluids used to frack shale formations to recover methane (shale gas), biocide compounds are often added to water to inhibit the microbial activity of sulfate-reducing bacteria in order to avoid anaerobic methane oxidation and to minimize potential production loss.
Arsenic is a chemical element with symbol As and atomic number 33. Arsenic occurs in many minerals, usually in conjunction with sulfur and metals, and also as a pure elemental crystal. It was first documented by Albertus Magnus in 1250.Arsenic is a metalloid. It can exist in various allotropes, although only the gray form has important use in industry.
The main use of metallic arsenic is for strengthening alloys of copper and especially lead (for example, in car batteries). Arsenic is a common n-type dopant in semiconductor electronic devices, and the optoelectronic compound gallium arsenide is the most common semiconductor in use after doped silicon. Arsenic and its compounds, especially the trioxide, are used in the production of pesticides (treated wood products), herbicides, and insecticides. These applications are declining, however.
Arsenic is notoriously poisonous to multicellular life, although a few species of bacteria are able to use arsenic compounds as respiratory metabolites. Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects millions of people across the world.
Silver and copper alloys
Certain metals, such as silver, copper and copper alloys, are known to be far more poisonous to bacteria than others, such as stainless steel and aluminium, which is why they are used in mineral sanitizers for swimming pools and spas.
Many infections can be spread by doorknobs. Brass doorknobs disinfect themselves in about eight hours, while stainless steel and aluminium knobs never do. Unvarnished brass doorknobs therefore tend to be more sanitary than stainless or aluminium doorknobs. The effect is important in hospitals, and useful in any building.
Silver is capable of rendering stored drinking water potable for several months. For this reason, water tanks on ships and airplanes are often “silvered”. Metallic silver, including colloidal silver, and silver compounds (silver sulfadiazine) are used externally in wound and burn treatments. Silver nanoparticles, obtained by irradiating a silver nitrate solution with an electron beam, are effective bactericides, destroying gram-negative species immune to conventional antibacterial agents. Silver-coated medical implants and devices have been shown to be more resistant to biofilm formation. Silver nitrate has been shown to be effective in inhibiting the development of the herpes simplex type 1 virus though it is largely ineffective against type 2.
Selenium is found impurely in metal sulfide ores, where it partially replaces the sulfur. Commercially, selenium is produced as a byproduct in the refining of these ores, most often during copper production. Minerals that are pure selenide or selenate compounds are known, but are rare. The chief commercial uses for selenium today are in glassmaking and in pigments. Selenium is a semiconductor and is used in photocells. Uses in electronics, once important, have been mostly supplanted by silicon semiconductor devices. Selenium continues to be used in a few types of DC power surge protectors and one type of fluorescent quantum dot.
Selenium salts are toxic in large amounts, but trace amounts are necessary for cellular function in many organisms, including all animals. Selenium is a component of the antioxidant enzymes glutathione peroxidase and thioredoxin reductase (which indirectly reduce certain oxidized molecules in animals and some plants). It is also found in three deiodinase enzymes, which convert one thyroid hormone to another. Selenium requirements in plants differ by species, with soToxicity
Although selenium is an essential trace element, it is toxic if taken in excess. Exceeding the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of 400 micrograms per day can lead to selenosis. This 400 microgram (µg) Tolerable Upper Intake Level is based primarily on a 1986 study of five Chinese patients who exhibited overt signs of selenosis and a follow up study on the same five people in 1992. The 1992 study actually found the maximum safe dietary Se intake to be approximately 800 micrograms per day (15 micrograms per kilogram body weight), but suggested 400 micrograms per day to not only avoid toxicity, but also to avoid creating an imbalance of nutrients in the diet and to account for data from other countries.In China, people who ingested corn grown in extremely selenium-rich stony coal (carbonaceous shale) have suffered from selenium toxicity. This coal was shown to have selenium content as high as 9.1%, the highest concentration in coal ever recorded in literature.
Symptoms of selenosis include a garlic odor on the breath, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, sloughing of nails, fatigue, irritability, and neurological damage. Extreme cases of selenosis can result in cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary edema, and death.Elemental selenium and most metallic selenides have relatively low toxicities because of their low bioavailability. By contrast, selenates and selenites are very toxic, having an oxidant mode of action similar to that of arsenic trioxide. The chronic toxic dose of selenite for humans is about 2400 to 3000 micrograms of selenium per day for a long time.Hydrogen selenide is an extremely toxic, corrosive gas.Selenium also occurs in organic compounds, such as dimethyl selenide, selenomethionine, selenocysteine and methylselenocysteine, all of which have high bioavailability and are toxic in large doses.
some plants requiring relatively large amounts, and others apparently requiring none.
Copper toxicity refers to the consequences of an excess of copper in the body. Copper toxicity can occur from eating acid foods cooked in uncoated copper cookware, or from exposure to excess copper in drinking water or other environmental sources.
Too much copper in water has also been found to damage marine life.The observed effect of these higher concentrations on fish and other creatures is damage to gills, liver, kidneys and the nervous system. It also interferes with the sense of smell in fish, thus preventing them from choosing good mates or finding their way to mating areas.
Copper and copper alloys such as brass have been found to be toxic to bacteria via the oligodynamic effect. The exact mechanism of action is unknown, but common to other heavy metals. Viruses are less susceptible to this effect than bacteria. Associated applications include the use of brass doorknobs in hospitals, which have been found to self-disinfect after eight hours, and mineral sanitizers, in which copper can act as an algicide. Overuse of copper sulfate as an algicide has been speculated to have caused a copper poisoning epidemic on Great Palm Island in 1979.