Health effects of zinc
Zinc is one of the most common elements in the Earth's crust. Zinc is found in the air, soil, and water and is present in all foods. In its pure elemental (or metallic) form, zinc is a bluish-white, shiny metal. Powdered zinc is explosive and may burst into flames if stored in damp places. Metallic zinc has many uses in industry. A common use for zinc is to coat steel and iron as well as other metals to prevent rust and corrosion; this process is called galvanization. Metallic zinc is also mixed with other metals to form alloys such as brass and bronze. A zinc and copper alloy is used to make pennies in the United States. Metallic zinc is also used to make dry cell batteries.
Zinc can also combine with other elements, such as chlorine, oxygen, and sulfur, to form zinc compounds. Zinc compounds that may be found at hazardous waste sites are zinc chloride, zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, and zinc sulfide. Most zinc ore found naturally in the environment is in the form of zinc sulfide. Zinc compounds are widely used in industry. Zinc sulfide and zinc oxide are used to make white paints, ceramics, and other products. Zinc oxide is also used in producing rubber. Zinc compounds, such as zinc acetate, zinc chloride, and zinc sulfate, are used in preserving wood and in manufacturing and dyeing fabrics. Zinc chloride is also the major ingredient in smoke from smoke bombs. Zinc compounds are used by the drug industry as ingredients in some common products, such as vitamin supplements, sun blocks, diaper rash ointments, deodorants, athlete's foot preparations, acne and poison ivy preparations, and antidandruff shampoos.
Pathways for zinc in the environment
Zinc enters the air, water, and soil as a result of both natural processes and human activities. Most zinc enters the environment as the result of mining, purifying of zinc, lead, and cadmium ores, steel production, coal burning, and burning of wastes. These activities can increase zinc levels in the atmosphere. Waste streams from zinc and other metal manufacturing and zinc chemical industries, domestic wastewater, and run-off from soil containing zinc can discharge zinc into waterways. The level of zinc in soil increases mainly from disposal of zinc wastes from metal manufacturing industries and coal ash from electric utilities. Sludge and fertilizer also contribute to increased levels of zinc in the soil. In air, zinc is present mostly as fine dust particles. This dust eventually settles over land and water. Rain and snow aid in removing zinc from air. Most of the zinc in lakes or rivers settles on the bottom. However, a small amount may remain either dissolved in water or as fine suspended particles. The level of dissolved zinc in water may increase as the acidity of water increases. Fish can collect zinc in their bodies from the water they swim in and from the food they eat. Most of the zinc in soil is bound to the soil and does not dissolve in water. However, depending on the type of soil, some zinc may reach groundwater, and contamination of groundwater has occurred from hazardous waste sites. Zinc may be taken up by animals eating soil or drinking water containing zinc. Zinc is also a trace mineral nutrient and as such, small amounts of zinc are needed in all animals.
Exposure to zinc
Zinc is an essential element needed by your body in small amounts. We are exposed to zinc compounds in food. The average daily zinc intake through the diet in this country ranges from 5.2 to 16.2 milligrams (milligram=0.001 gram). Food may contain levels of zinc ranging from approximately 2 parts of zinc per million (2 ppm) parts of foods (e.g., leafy vegetables) to 29 ppm (meats, fish, poultry). Zinc is also present in most drinking water. Drinking water or other beverages may contain high levels of zinc if they are stored in metal containers or flow through pipes that have been coated with zinc to resist rust. If you take more than the recommended daily amount of supplements containing zinc, you may have higher levels of zinc exposure.
In general, levels of zinc in air are relatively low and fairly constant. Average levels of zinc in the air throughout the United States are less than 1 microgram of zinc per cubic meter (µg/m3) of air, but range from 0.1 to 1.7 µg/m³ in areas near cities.
Air near industrial areas may have higher levels of zinc. The average zinc concentration for a 1-year period was 5 µg/m3 in one area near an industrial source.
In addition to background exposure that all of us experience, about 150,000 people also have a source of occupational exposure to zinc that might elevate their total exposure significantly above the average background exposure. Jobs where people are exposed to zinc include zinc mining, smelting, and welding; manufacture of brass, bronze, or other zinc-containing alloys; manufacture of galvanized metals; and manufacture of machine parts, rubber, paint, linoleum, oilcloths, batteries, some kinds of glass and ceramics, and dyes. People at construction jobs, automobile mechanics, and painters are also exposed to zinc.
Pathways for zinc in the body
Zinc can enter the body through the digestive tract when you eat food or drink water containing it. Zinc can also enter through your lungs if you inhale zinc dust or fumes from zinc-smelting or zinc-welding operations on your job. The amount of zinc that passes directly through the skin is relatively small. The most likely route of exposure near National Priorities List (NPL) waste sites is through drinking water containing a high amount of zinc. Zinc is stored throughout the body. Zinc increases in blood and bone most rapidly after exposure. Zinc may stay in the bone for many days after exposure. Normally, zinc leaves the body in urine and feces.
Health effects of zinc
Scientists use many tests to protect the public from harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways for treating persons who have been harmed.
You should know that one way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify such health effects as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.
Additionally, there are vigorous national and international efforts to develop alternatives to animal testing. The efforts focus on both in vitro and in silico approaches and methods. For example, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) created the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM) in 1998. The role of NICEATM is to serve the needs of high quality, credible science by facilitating development and validation—and regulatory and public acceptance—of innovative, revised test methods that reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in testing while strengthening protection of human health, animal health and welfare, and the environment. In Europe, similar efforts at developing alternatives to animal based testing are taking place under the aegis of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM).
Inhaling large amounts of zinc (as zinc dust or fumes from smelting or welding) can cause a specific short-term disease called metal fume fever, which is generally reversible once exposure to zinc ceases. However, very little is known about the long-term effects of breathing zinc dust or fumes.
Taking too much zinc into the body through food, water, or dietary supplements can also affect health. The levels of zinc that produce adverse health effects are much higher than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for zinc of 11 mg/day for men and 8 mg/day for women. If large doses of zinc (10-15 times higher than the RDA) are taken by mouth even for a short time, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting may occur. Ingesting high levels of zinc for several months may cause anemia, damage the pancreas, and decrease levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
Eating food containing very large amounts of zinc (1,000 times higher than the RDA) for several months caused many health effects in rats, mice, and ferrets, including anemia and injury to the pancreas and kidney. Rats that ate very large amounts of zinc became infertile. Rats that ate very large amounts of zinc after becoming pregnant had smaller babies. Putting low levels of certain zinc compounds, such as zinc acetate and zinc chloride, on the skin of rabbits, guinea pigs, and mice caused skin irritation. Skin irritation from exposure to these chemicals would probably occur in humans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that because of lack of information, zinc is not classifiable as to its human carcinogenicity.
Consuming too little zinc is at least as important a health problem as consuming too much zinc. Without enough zinc in the diet, people may experience loss of appetite, decreased sense of taste and smell, decreased immune function, slow wound healing, and skin sores. Too little zinc in the diet may also cause poorly developed sex organs and retarded growth in young men. If a pregnant woman does not get enough zinc, her babies may have birth defects.
Health effects in children
This section discusses potential health effects in humans from exposures during the period from conception to maturity at 18 years of age.
Zinc is essential for proper growth and development of young children. Mothers who did not eat enough zinc during pregnancy had a higher frequency of birth defects and gave birth to smaller children (lower birth weight) than mothers whose zinc levels were sufficient. Very young children who did not receive enough zinc in the diet were smaller, both in length and in body weight, than children who ate enough zinc. Some foods, such as soy-based formulas, contain high levels of phytate, which can result in a decreased absorption of zinc in the diet. Too much of these foods may result in effects similar to those that occur when children receive too little zinc in the diet.
Little is known about whether children who eat too much zinc will react differently from adults who have ingested large amounts of zinc. A child who accidentally drank a large amount of a caustic zinc solution was found to have damage to his mouth and stomach, and later to his pancreas, but similar effects have been seen in adults who accidentally drank the same solution.
Reducing risk of exposure to zinc
If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to substantial amounts of zinc, ask whether your children might also have been exposed. Your doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.
Children living near waste sites containing zinc are likely to be exposed to higher environmental levels of zinc through breathing, drinking contaminated drinking water, touching soil, and eating contaminated soil. It is unlikely that a child would ingest enough zinc from eating soil to cause harmful effects. However, parents should supervise to see that children avoid eating soil and wash their hands frequently, especially before eating. Parents should consult their family physicians about whether (and how) hand-to-mouth behaviors in their children might be discouraged.
Children and adults require a certain amount of zinc in the diet in order to remain healthy. However, overuse of some medicines or vitamin supplements containing zinc might be harmful; these medicines should always be used appropriately. If you are accidentally exposed to large amounts of zinc, consult a physician immediately.
Medical tests for exposure to zinc
Medical tests can determine whether your body fluids contain high levels of zinc. Samples of blood or feces can be collected in a doctor's office and sent to a laboratory that can measure zinc levels. It is easier for most laboratories to measure zinc in blood than in feces. The presence of high levels of zinc in the feces can mean recent high zinc exposure. High levels of zinc in the blood can mean high zinc consumption and/or high exposure. High zinc levels in blood or feces reflect the level of exposure to zinc. Measuring zinc levels in urine and saliva also may provide information about zinc exposure. Tests to measure zinc in hair may provide information on long-term zinc exposure; however, no useful correlation has been found between hair zinc levels and zinc exposure and these tests are not routinely used. Since zinc levels can be affected by dietary deficiency and cell stress, these results may not be directly related to current zinc exposure.
Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.