The Deadly Effects of Human Rust Ingestion

Rust proof Sarnia

Rust is a part of life. Anywhere there is metal exposed to the elements, there will likely be rust and flaking metal. Whether you have old rusty pipes in your home or a desire to buff the rust off of your vehicle, if you plan on spending any time around this type of iron corrosion, you run the risk of rust ingestion or iron toxicity.

Small amounts of rust in your system is not dangerous — in fact, trace amounts of iron is necessary in order for oxygen to be distributed throughout the body — but ingesting too much rust can lead to health issues at best and death at worst.

Eating and drinking rust  

The most common form of rust ingestion is through consumption. It can come from water that has been run through rusty pipes or from eating food (especially acidic foods like tomatoes) that has been prepared using rusty utensils. 

Rust has an unpleasant metallic taste, which often deters people from ingesting it in toxic amounts. But prolonged ingestion — consuming contaminated well water, for example — can cause serious health issues including diarrhea, stomach ache, nausea and vomiting. In severe cases, liver failure and major cardiovascular complications may occur characterized by rapid breathing, increased heart rate and weak, erratic pulse.

Inhaling rust particles  

A much more dangerous form of rust ingestion is through inhalation. This can happen while buffing rust spots out of a car frame or by breathing fumes that contain rust particles.

Because rust is such a heavy metal, it will settle in the lungs after prolonged exposure. When the body cannot expel the excess rust, lung injury caused by metabolic acidosis can occur, leading to rapid breathing, confusion, lethargy, and in some cases shock and death.   

If you notice any of the following symptoms after being exposed to air-born rust particles, visit your local emergency room immediately.

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting (especially if it is accompanied by blood)
  • Bloody mucus

Other risks for rust toxicity   

There is also concern about rust toxicity via wound — if someone steps on a rusty nail, for example — but because most people are commonly treated with tetanus vaccinations, this is unlikely to occur.

The bigger concern with cuts and scrapes from rusty tools is the bacteria that is likely to accompany the wound. Specifically, the bacteria Clostridia, which also grows in soil and feces, is the one known to cause tetanus (also called “lock-jaw” because of its characteristic stiffening of the joints). Because the bacteria only grown in the absence of oxygen, deep wounds that are not properly flushed are especially vulnerable to the infection. Small scrapes on the surface of the skin are usually not.

If you have metal that is regularly exposed to the elements, then you will likely have to deal with rust from time to time. And, though small amounts of rust are typically fine when ingested, larger amounts of rust (or rust that has been ingested via inhalation) can be deadly.

If you are concerned with rust ingestion — especially if you have experienced any of the symptoms listed above — it is imperative that you visit a medical professional immediately. 

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