Heavy metals such as cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), lead (Pb), chromium (Cr) and platinum (Pt) are a major environmental and occupational hazard. Unfortunately, these non-essential elements are toxic at very low doses and non-biodegradable with a very long biological half-life. Thus, exposure to heavy metals is potentially harmful. Because of its ability to reabsorb and accumulate divalent metals, the kidney is the first target organ of heavy metal toxicity. The extent of renal damage by heavy metals depends on the nature, the dose, route and duration of exposure. Both acute and chronic intoxication have been demonstrated to cause nephropathies, with various levels of severity ranging from tubular dysfunctions like acquired Fanconi syndrome to severe renal failure leading occasionally to death.
Very varied pathways are involved in uptake of heavy metals by the epithelium, depending on the form (free or bound) of the metal and the segment of the nephron where reabsorption occurs (proximal tubule, loop of Henle, distal tubule and terminal segments). In this review, we address the putative uptake pathways involved along the nephron, the mechanisms of intracellular sequestration and detoxification and the nephropathies caused by heavy metals. We also tackle the question of the possible therapeutic means of decreasing the toxic effect of heavy metals by increasing their urinary excretion without affecting the renal uptake of essential trace elements. We have chosen to focus mainly on Cd, Hg and Pb and on in vivo studies.