A heavy metal is a member of a loosely-defined subset of elements that exhibit metallic properties. It mainly includes the transition metals, some metalloids, lanthanides, and actinides. Many different definitions have been proposed—some based on density, some on atomic number or atomic weight, and some on chemical properties or toxicity. The term heavy metal has been called a "misinterpretation" in an IUPAC technical report due to the contradictory definitions and its lack of a "coherent scientific basis". There is an alternative term toxic metal, for which no consensus of exact definition exists either. As discussed below, depending on context, heavy metal can include elements lighter than carbon and can exclude some of the heaviest metals. Heavy metals occur naturally in the ecosystem with large variations in concentration. In modern times, anthropogenic sources of heavy metals, i.e. pollution, have been introduced to the ecosystem. Waste-derived fuels are especially prone to contain heavy metals, so heavy metals are a concern in consideration of waste as fuel.
Relationship to living organisms
Living organisms require varying amounts of "heavy metals." Iron, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc are required by humans. Excessive levels can be damaging to the organism. Other heavy metals such as mercury, plutonium, and lead are toxic metals that have no known vital or beneficial effect on organisms, and their accumulation over time in the bodies of animals can cause serious illness. Certain elements that are normally toxic are, for certain organisms or under certain conditions, beneficial. Examples include vanadium, tungsten, and even cadmium.
Heavy metal pollution
Motivations for controlling heavy metal concentrations in gas streams are diverse. Some of them are dangerous to health or to the environment (e.g. mercury, cadmium, lead, chromium), some may cause corrosion (e.g. zinc, lead), some are harmful in other ways (e.g. arsenic may pollute catalysts). Within the European community the thirteen elements of highest concern are arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, mercury, manganese, nickel, lead, tin, and thallium, the emissions of which are regulated in waste incinerators. Some of these elements are actually necessary for humans in minute amounts (cobalt, copper, chromium, manganese, nickel) while others are carcinogenic or toxic, affecting, among others, the central nervous system (manganese, mercury, lead, arsenic), the kidneys or liver (mercury, lead, cadmium, copper) or skin, bones, or teeth (nickel, cadmium, copper, chromium).
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