What Are The 13 Priority Pollutant Metals?

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed to prohibit unlawful disposal of toxic pollutants in United States waters. In this act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined lists of toxic pollutants that would present harm to the environment and, therefore, require federal regulation when being disposed of. Developed in 1976, the Toxic Pollutant List, which contains 65 entries deemed toxic, includes groupings of pollutants and functions as a starting point for the EPA in regulating the disposal of these pollutants.

To make this list more usable for testing and for regulation, the EPA developed a derivative list formed titled the Priority Pollutant List in 1977.

Priority Pollutant List from the Clean Water Act

Simply put, the Priority Pollutants are a set of identified chemical pollutants that are regulated by the EPA. The EPA has published analytical testing methods to them to be used by manufacturers in determining the presence of the chemicals and their toxicity.

In determining which pollutants are considered priority, the EPA used four main pieces of criteria to prioritize the specific pollutants that now create the Priority Pollutants List.

  1. Using pollutants specifically named on the list of toxic pollutants
  2. The pollutant has a chemical standard available to allow testing
  3. The pollutant was reported as found in water with an occurred frequency of at least 2.5%
  4. The pollutant was produced in largely significant quantities

Of the 126 chemicals outlined in this list, priority pollutants can be divided into three separate categories:

  1. Metals
  2. Pesticides
  3. Volatile & non-volatile organics

13 Priority Pollutant Metals

Trace amounts of metals are relatively common in water and some metals are actually essential to sustain life. However, when the levels of those metals are unusually high or you’re exposed to toxic metals, your health could be at risk.

Because the 13 metals within the priority pollutant list are frequently found in wastewater, they were identified and assigned by the EPA  as high priority for developing water quality criteria and effluent limitation guidelines.

These metals are considered toxic due to their detrimental and harmful effects on both environmental health and human health.

The following are identified by the EPA as the 13 Priority Pollutant Metals

  1. Antimony (Sb)
  2. Arsenic (As)
  3. Beryllium (Be)
  4. Cadmium (Cd)
  5. Chromium (Cr)
  6. Copper (Cu)
  7. Lead (Pb)
  8. Mercury (Hg)
  9. Nickel (Ni)
  10. Selenium (Se)
  11. Silver (Ag)
  12. Thallium (Ti)
  13. Zinc (Zn)

In detecting these metals, there are a few ways to do so. Whether using the EPA’s atomic absorption spectroscopy, a very sensitive method to analyze the priority pollutants, or you’re using dibenzyldithiocarbamate and liquid chromatography to form complexes with the priority, it’s of the utmost importance to ensure proper understanding and detection of these metals.

We’ve outlined the hazardous levels and toxicity of these metals alongside their effects on human and environmental health.

Antimony (Sb)

Hazardous levels – 9 mg/m3 in air

Health effects – eye, skin and lung irritation, lung disease, heart problems, diarrhea, severe vomiting and stomach ulcers, dermatitis, dizziness, abdominal pain


Arsenic (As)

Hazardous levels – 0.010 mg/L in water

Health effects – cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver damage, leukemia, kidney & bladder cancers, peripheral nervous system problems, vomiting, diarrhea


Beryllium (Be)

Hazardous levels – 0.00005 mg/m3  in air

Health effects – fatigue, shortness of breath, weight loss, poor appetite, lung cancer, chemical pneumonia, fever, night sweats, enlarged liver and spleen, kidney stones


Cadmium (Cd)

Hazardous levels – 5 mg/m3  in air

Health effects – chills, fever, muscle pain, kidney, lung and bone damage, cancer, chest pains, muscular weakness, stomach irritation, vomiting and diarrhea


Chromium (Cr)

Hazardous levels – 50-150 mg/kg in water

Health effects – nose, throat and lung irritation, lung cancer, eye damage, dermatitis, skin ulcers, shortness of breath, asthma, respiratory cancer, abdominal pain, tooth erosion and discoloration


Copper (Cu)

Hazardous levels – 140 mcg/dL in blood

Health effects – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, liver and kidney damage, nose, mouth and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness


Lead (Pb)

Hazardous levels – 10 μg/dL in blood

Health effects – high blood pressure, memory and learning difficulties, kidney failure, amnesia, brain damage, weakness, nervous system damage, irritability, constipation, depression, abdominal pain, forgetfulness


Mercury (Hg)

Hazardous levels –  0.2 ppm (mg/L) in water

Health effects – neuropathy, numbness, loss of peripheral vision, lack of coordination, impaired speech and hearing, muscle weakness, tremors, mood swings, insomnia, headaches, dermatitis


Nickel (Ni)

Hazardous levels – 1 mg/m3  in air

Health effects – skin irritation, lung, stomach and kidney damage, cancer, bronchitis, lung and nasal cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung fibrosis, headaches, gastrointestinal manifestations


Selenium (Se)

Hazardous levels – 0.02 mg/m3  in air

Health effects – fever, nausea, liver, kidney and heart problems, skin cancer, hair loss, seleniosis, cardiovascular disease, thyroid disease, cognitive decline


Silver (Ag)

Hazardous levels – 5.0 ppm (mg/L) in water

Health effects – skin and eye irritation, irritation of the respiratory and intestinal tract, liver and kidney damage, bronchitis


Thallium (Ti)

Hazardous levels – 0.1 mg/m3  in air

Health effects – numbness in fingers and toes, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, lung, heart, liver and kidney damage, sore tongue, eczematous lesions, pustular eruptions on the face, scaling of the palms and soles


Zinc (Zn)

Hazardous levels – 1 mg/m3  in air

Health effects – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, headaches, lowered immunity, indigestion


Finding an Accredited Lab for Testing

If you’re in the industrial manufacturing industry (or any industry that produces these pollutant metals), it’s of the most importance to ensure your environment is being properly tested for potential health risks and toxic exposures.

When you enlist the services of a certified environmental hazards testing laboratory, you decrease the risk of health to yourself, employees, patrons and the environment.

Get in touch with EHS today to ensure your environment is protected from hazardous and toxic chemicals, metals and more elements.