When working with generic classes in Java, you may run into problems when you use a varargs parameter like in the following example:

<T> void foo(T ... things) {}

This will produce a warning with the following message: Warning: Possible heap pollution from parameterized vararg type T. If the method is final or static (that is, if it is not possible to overwrite the method at some other part of the code), you can use the annotation @SafeVarargs to hide this warning. However, it is usually better to understand the problem before ignoring a warning.

It turns out that this issue actually is among the hardest things to explain in Java.

What is “heap pollution”?

First of all, let’s try to understand the compiler warning a little better and look at the term heap pollution. Essentially, heap pollution means that a variable holds a reference to an object that is not of the type that is indicated by the variable.

With generics it is actually fairly easy to achieve heap pollution:

List<Double> lst = new ArrayList<>();
List<Integer> lsti = (List<Integer>)(List) lst;

Now we have a variable of the type List<Integer> that actually holds a value of the type List<Double>. The compiler (or the JShell) rightfully issues a warning that the cast (List) is unchecked. You can use the code above, because the information about the generic type is erased during runtime, but you can run into unexpected exceptions. Let’s assume that our lsti is passed to some other unsuspecting part of our code, where we want to extract a value:

jshell> Integer x = lsti.get(0);
|  java.lang.ClassCastException thrown: java.base/java.lang.Double cannot be cast to java.base/java.lang.Integer
|        at (#15:1)

The return type of the method get() in List<Integer> is Integer, so we had no reason to expect something else. Yet still we got a Double.

Why can varargs lead to heap pollution?

So far so good (or bad), but in our previous example the problem was the cast to the raw type List. We do not do any casts in our varargs example, so how should this lead to heap pollution?

At this point I would like to present a challenge to my readers: Give me an example of heap pollution through a varargs parameter that does not result in another warning other than the initial warning about the varargs parameter itself. I have yet to find such an example, so I will present you one that at least does not use any explicit casts.

<T> String foo(T... things) {
    return things.getClass().getComponentType().getName();
<T> String bar(T thing) {
    return foo(thing);

Here, the definition of bar issues the following warning:

|  Warning:
|  unchecked generic array creation for varargs parameter of type T[]
|      return foo(thing);
|             ^--------^
|  modified method bar(T)

This points us to the reason why varargs parameters can be problematic. At runtime, a varargs parameter behaves like an ordinary array. This means that the compiler has to generate code for our method foo that will generate an Array of type T[]. Also you can see from the above example that Arrays - unlike Lists or other generic classes - keep track of their component type during runtime.

For example, if you write foo(7) somewhere in your code, the compiler will actually translate this to foo(new Integer[]{7}). In this simple case this is no problem and the resulting array will have the correct component type:

jshell> foo(7)
$34 ==> "java.lang.Integer"

As the warning for bar suggests, it gets more interesting if the component type is again generic, that is if the compiler cannot determine the concrete type of the varargs parameter at the call site.

jshell> bar(7)
$36 ==> "java.lang.Object"

The call to foo within bar has one parameter of type T, so the compiler would have to translate the call to foo(new T[]{thing}). If you have ever written a generic array list in Java, you know that this is not possible, since the parameter T is erased at runtime, but the array needs to know it’s component type.

jshell> <T> T[] genAr() { return new T[3]; }
|  Error:
|  generic array creation
|  <T> T[] genAr() { return new T[3]; }
|                           ^------^

The only1 solution to this dilemma is to actually use an array of type Object[] and to cast it to T[] (which only works, because T[] is erased to Object[] at runtime). Back to our example of foo and bar this means that we now have a compiler-generated call foo((T[])new Object[]{thing}). And this leads to heap pollution, because when we call bar(7) we expect things to be an Integer[], but we actually have the type Object[] which is not a subtype of Integer[].

To make the example complete, we can now generate a class cast exception due to this heap pollution (again with a piece of code that issues two separate warnings):

<T> T[] polluter(T... things) {
    return things;
<T> T[] caster(T thing) {
    return polluter(thing);

We return the array generated for the varargs parameter and therefore expose our polluted variable. It would be perfectly sane to assume that the following code cannot fail due to a class cast exception, but it does:

jshell> Double[] ar = caster(3.5);
|  java.lang.ClassCastException thrown: java.base/[Ljava.lang.Object; cannot be cast to java.base/[Ljava.lang.Double;
|        at (#48:1)

And there you have it: Heap pollution caused by a varargs parameter.

This is the reason why the generic version of the Method toArray(T[]) of the Interface List needs an Argument of type T[]. It needs to infer the component type at runtime from the existing Array.

The solution

So what is the solution for this dilemma? I think this can be summed up in two simple rules:

  1. If you can avoid it, do not use varargs parameters with generic types (or cast an Object array to an array of a generic type).
  2. If you cannot avoid it, make sure not to expose the varargs parameter (or the generic array) to any other method or class.


  1. Actually you can use the static Method newInstance(Class<?>,int) of the class java.lang.reflect.Array to generate an Array of an arbitrary component Type at runtime, but you have to change your signature, because you need a reference to the class object of the component Type.