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If I start experimenting with metals for aquariums, how can I detect that the metal is causing the problems? I want to clearly identify the metal toxicity from wrong pH, wrong temperature, bad filtration, infections...
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I don't think it is possible to easily know this for sure, both because of the often non-specific symptoms of toxic metal poisoning and the fact that an aquarium is a complex biological system of interconnected vessels which could be all simultaneously affected by their toxic action and thus present ambiguous results.
Mentioned diagnosis difficulty is also the case in humans; even though humans, in contrast to fish, could describe their perceived subjective symptoms themselves, accurate diagnosis of metal poisoning requires laboratory analysis of blood, hair or tissue samples.
For example it might be close to impossible to immediately differentiate metal poisoning from ammonia or nitrite poisoning, because a lot of metals, especially heavy metals, are also extremely toxic to microorganisms, much more so than to fish. If the toxic metal presence kills beneficial flora in the filter media, it will result in ammonia and nitrite poisoning symptoms, but without knowing the context it might be impossible to tell that it was the metal that caused this in the first place.
However, in the market there are various test kits for detecting and measuring the amount of dissolved metals in the water, which are in principle similar to ammonia, nitrite and nitrate test kits; they could be either specific and aimed for a single metal, or be all-in-one test kits sensitive to the presence of multiple elements. It might be viable to use such test kit in case you suspect metal poisoning.
An article about this on theaquariumwiki.com lists various symptoms of toxic metal poisoning, but as you could see they aren't exactly specific:
Acute poisoning - leading quickly to death:
- Gasping at the surface or lying on the substrate
- Uncontrolled swimming
- Glazed or non-moving eyes
Chronic poisoning - slow death:
- Loss of appetite
- Breathing more rapidly
- More likely to catch fungus and bacterial disease due to damaged immune system
- Growth deformities
Why would metals be a problem in an aquarium ? Just don't put in anything with copper. That is pretty easy as copper alloys are red /yellow color except monel which is not common and expensive. Copper is toxic that is one reason is is used on ships to reduce fouling by organisms. For there to be a problem the metal must dissolve or corrode to put ions in the water. I can promise you from experience that iron, stainless steel, nickel alloys, lead , aluminum are not a problem. X-ray fluorescence would be the cheapest way to detect metals; I think today you could get a cheap unit for a few thousand dollars (US).