Zinc is a very abundant element, appearing as a blueish white metal in its pure state. Zinc is also highly adaptable and has many uses, including rust resistant coating, blending with other metals, and use in wood preservatives. A small amount of zinc is necessary for a balanced human diet. However, being exposed to more than 10 times the amount of recommended zinc can result in zinc poisoning. Zinc poisoning can be deadly if not caught and treated quickly.
For healthy adults, the daily recommended amount of zinc ranges between 12 and 15 milligrams. Most people are able to get the necessary amount of zinc naturally, through eating foods which have absorbed zinc. Others may take dietary supplements to increase their zinc intake. Dietary zinc appears in most multivitamins and also as a plain pill. It is unusual for people to experience zinc poisoning due to ingestion of dietary zinc, as long as the dosage recommendations of a doctor are followed.
There are other sources of zinc which can lead to zinc poisoning, however. Workers in factories which use zinc or zinc alloys are often exposed to high levels of zinc. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the United States regulates the amount of zinc individuals may be exposed to in the workplace. Sites which are contaminated often contain zinc, which leaches into the soil and may contaminate drinking water as well.
Zinc is an intestinal irritant, and the first sign of zinc poisoning is usually intestinal distress. This includes vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea. Further symptoms of zinc poisoning are low blood pressure, urine retention, jaundice, seizures, joint pain, fever, coughing, and a metallic taste in the mouth. If these symptoms appear and exposure to zinc is suspected, the person affected should be given lots of milk or water and taken to a hospital. A poison control center can give a referral to a hospital, along with other suggestions for making the patient comfortable.
Zinc is considered a heavy metal, which means that it is dense and that relatively low concentrations of the element in the body may lead to heavy metal poisoning. The symptoms of zinc poisoning are similar to other types of heavy metal poisoning. Because of this, exposure to any type of heavy metal should be disclosed to medical staff.
If left untreated, or if a high level of exposure continues, zinc poisoning can be deadly. Exposure to unhealthy levels of zinc should be limited for all ages. Parents should keep zinc supplements out of the reach of children, as well as keeping their children away from contaminated soil and water. Other adults should be aware of their workplace environments, and should follow medical recommendations on zinc supplements. If living in a contaminated area, filtered water should be used and soil disturbance should be avoided.