While heavy metal toxicity may be obvious, as in the blue man example or a toxic industrial exposure, the slow incremental build up of heavy metals is often overlooked by most health care practitioners. Unfortunately, chronic heavy metal toxicity can lead to many vague and yet serious problems. These problems can range from headaches to hair loss, and relief can only be obtained upon ridding your body of these excess heavy metals.
So how can you tell if you have an excessive build up of heavy metals and how can this be treated if you do?
Testing for Heavy Metals
Fortunately, acute heavy metal poisoning is relatively rare. It does occur, like when a small child comes across some rat poison (arsenic), or from an industrial accident, but most instances of heavy metal toxicity tend to occur gradually over many years. While it might be relatively easy to figure out that a person is suffering from an acute poisoning, assessing chronic toxicity is much more challenging.
While you may have too much of a particular heavy metal in your body, most standard laboratory tests (blood and urine) may detect nothing unusual. Unless you have had an acute toxic exposure these tests simply aren’t helpful. With chronic exposures; heavy metals tend to get locked away in areas of the body that are not easy to test (like your liver or brain) and may no longer show up in your blood or urine. Other than a liver or brain biopsy, it can be very challenging to properly assess a patients heavy metal toxic burden.
While other testing methods exist, including the use of hair analysis or Applied Kinesiology testing, it is important to understand that there are no tests that are completely specific or reliable for detecting heavy metal toxicity. Nonetheless, an experienced and knowledgeable health care provider will use their clinical knowledge in combination with the use of other testing methods to decide if there is a problem that might require treatment.
What are heavy metals?
The group of elements termed “heavy metals” is a poorly defined group, as several of these elements aren’t technically heavy metals (aluminum, for instance) in the traditional sense. Nonetheless, "heavy metal poisoning" can include excessive amounts of any toxic metal element. This can include high levels of iron, manganese, chromium, aluminium, mercury, cadmium, beryllium (the fourth lightest element), or even arsenic (technically a “semi-metal”). Even metals essential to life can be toxic if their levels are too high in your body.
Heavy metal elements are found in paints, batteries, many foods, fish, pollutants (such as fuel or power plant exhaust), wood preservatives, cigarettes, dietary supplements, antiperspirants, tap water, baby powder, and many other unexpected sources in our everyday lives and workplaces. Without being aware, we drink them, eat them, breathe them, or absorb them through our skin. Even more worrisome is that most of the time, we have no choice in the matter.
It is important to note that our body requires a certain amount of all the “heavy metals” to function properly. However, these amounts are incredibly small, and health problems develop when there is too much of any of them. Since many of the heavy metals tend to stick around in the body and are difficult for your body to remove, repeated exposures can quickly lead to serious problems.
The metals that are most likely to pose the greatest health risk are lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium. While these are not the only metals that can cause problems, they are the ones that cause difficulties most often. So let’s take a look at these four metals including the kinds of health problems they can cause as well as some of the testing and treatment options available.
Mercury has been used in products like thermometers.
Mercury is regarded by toxicologists to be one of the most poisonous naturally occurring substances on earth. Mercury can be found in anything from thermometers to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and let’s not forget mercury amalgam dental fillings. However, the most likely route of toxic exposure is from eating seafood.
Since mercury bio-accumulates (builds up in living things), it easily works its way up the food chain from the environment (pollution in the water) to algae to larger fish. When you eat fish, the mercury inside them then becomes part of your body. That’s why you may hear warnings about certain types of fish having higher than “normal” mercury levels. Mercury naturally occurs in the environment in small amounts, but the disturbingly high levels found in many fish are primarily because of man-made pollution (mainly electronic waste).
Mercury is extremely toxic, even in relatively small amounts, and causes serious problems throughout the body. Mercury is a very potent and highly reactive element, which makes it prone to causing damage to DNA. Because of this, it can cause damage to virtually any cell in your body.
Mercury poisoning can cause physical symptoms as varied as redness to cheeks, nose, and lips; loss of hair, teeth, and nails; transient rashes, severe muscle weakness, and increased sensitivity to light. In addition to these physical symptoms, mercury poisoning can cause very serious mental and emotional problems, such as nervousness, memory loss, headaches, and lowered levels of cognition.
Your body tries hard to remove mercury by detoxifying it, mainly in your liver. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of glutathione (your body’s main antioxidant/ detoxification workhorse molecule) to remove even a small amount of mercury, and the stores of glutathione there can be quickly depleted. This leads to severe oxidative damage to both the liver and kidneys.
Once your levels of glutathione get low, your body can’t deal with the oxidative stress from even normal metabolism, and a lot more damage gets done by free radicals and other toxins. All of this damage leads to cell death, DNA damage and mutations, and widespread cellular damage. (To learn more about detoxification, antioxidants, and oxidative stress see our posts discussing these topics in greater detail)
Mercury amalgam dental fillings deserve a special note, as they are a controversial topic. Many people have mercury amalgam fillings from childhood. While there is some danger from these fillings because they do leak a small amount of mercury (especially from chewing and exposure to hot liquids), the greater danger exists during their removal.
If you ever require the removal of a mercury amalgam filling make sure that your dentist is well versed in the recommended procedures. This involves using specialized proper ventilation and other procedures to ensure that you are not given an acute poisoning during the removal process. Many dentists are not aware of these risks and so it is really important that you seek out a dentist who specializes in these procedures for your own safety.
Soil contamination from leaded fuel use still exists to this day.
Lead has been used by humans since the bronze age of humanity all the way up to the modern era. The Romans, at the height of their empire, produced around 80,000 tons of lead per year. They primarily used lead for paint dyes, plumbing pipes, and food preservation. Even the Romans and Greeks knew of the health hazards of lead; Pliny the Elder wrote of ship painters wearing bags over their heads to avoid breathing in the dust while using lead paint for ships.
Because it is so soft and easy to work with, many cultures around the world, from Romans to the ancient Chinese, used it. Since then, lead has found uses in diverse ways such as bullets, paint dyes, Japanese geisha face paint color, batteries, fuel additive (to reduce engine knocking), pesticides, and consumer electronics (as solder). Even as recently as 2007, children’s toys from China have tested positive for lead (used in colored paints primarily).
Unfortunately, lead contamination is a sad reality we will live with for decades to come. Even though leaded fuels have been phased out of use, the unfortunate truth is that there is still a lot of lead found in soils around the world, remnants from the leaded fuel years. When leaded fuel was everywhere, despite its widely known toxicity, cars simply spit out exhaust laden with tiny bits of lead.
This lead flew around for a little while and eventually settled on the ground somewhere. Once in the soil, it stays until it comes into contact with humans or plants, who suffer from the effects of contact. Fortunately, there is hope for restoring areas which are heavily contaminated; there are innovative techniques for remediation of lead from soil.
Lead exposure can lead to a wide variety of health problems such as kidney damage, heart disease, high blood pressure, low sperm count, miscarriage, low birth weight, nervous system damage, and brain damage. The brain is the organ most sensitive to lead. Lead exposure can damage the brain’s ability to learn, disrupt brain development in children, and has been linked to learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
Lead can damage and destroy the nerves that make muscles work, leading to weak muscles, pain, and a chronic ‘pins and needles’-like numbness. The brain damage caused by lead exposure can also cause hallucinations, brain swelling, confusion, sleeplessness, convulsions, and memory loss.
The approved treatment used for lead poisoning is a chemical called “disodium calcium edetate”. This binds with the lead in your body and allows it to be excreted by your body while leaving behind harmless calcium. Testing for lead “poisoning” is usually done through analyzing blood levels of lead, but this test only reveals relatively short term exposures.
Arsenic is generally used as poisons and pesticides for pests like insects, bacteria, fungi, and rodents like rats. While there are several other industrial uses for arsenic, this is the most common one you might come into contact with. We recently covered an article about several brands of apple juice contaminated with arsenic from pesticides. Arsenic has also been used (decades ago) to treat wood used in construction and has been found in the wood used to build homes and even playground equipment for children (though this is rare and arsenic is no longer used for this purpose).
Arsenic poisoning starves your body of energy (ATP) causing widespread damage and cell death.
Arsenic poisoning interferes with ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the basic chemical energy source of the body) production in many parts of the production cycle, basically starving your body of energy at a cellular level. This results in multi-system organ failure as the cells of the body’s organs simply die off due to lack of energy. Even very small amounts can cause severe oxidative stress on your body, potentially leading to cancer.
Arsenic, while extremely toxic and dangerous, is actually needed in very small amounts by the body. Primarily, arsenic is used in a process called DNA methylation, which allows for small changes to gene expression to adapt to environmental factors. Unfortunately, too much arsenic will cause a huge increase in methylation of DNA, which can ultimately lead to cancer.
Arsenic also has some uses in medicine, specifically to do with cancers. Recently, some research has shown that a certain isotope of arsenic (As-74) is better at locating cancerous cells in a PET scan than any previously used chemicals. Some compounds containing arsenic are also used to effectively treat a type of leukemia and some other cancers.
The long term effects of arsenic exposure are very difficult to predict and testing for it is quite problematic. Hair, nails, blood, and urine tests exist, but they are difficult to interpret, especially with regards to health. Our bodies primarily excrete arsenic through urine, and long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked to bladder and kidney cancer. Because of its role in DNA methylation, it is not surprising that high levels of arsenic are also linked to cancer of the liver, prostate, skin, lungs, and the nasal cavity.
Cadmium is used in some types of paints for certain colors.
Cadmium is a very unlikely, but very dangerous heavy metal to be exposed to. Unless you live near or work in a factory that smelts metals or performs large amounts of welding, it is unlikely that you would be exposed to Cadmium in any serious amounts. Food can be a small source of cadmium; plants generally only contain trace amounts in non-industrial areas, but high levels are found in the liver and kidneys of adult animals who were exposed either directly or through contaminated food and water.
Cigarettes are a significant source of cadmium exposure; although there is less cadmium found in tobacco than in food, the lungs absorb cadmium much more efficiently than does the gut. Older rechargeable batteries (Ni-Cd), if improperly disposed (simply thrown in the trash) can leach cadmium into the soil and possibly groundwater.
Recently, McDonalds and Walmart were both the subject of serious cadmium related controversies. In June of 2011, McDonalds recalled 12 million drinking glasses promoting the movie “Shrek Forever After” because the paint they used contained cadmium. Walmart was found to be selling a line of Miley Cyrus jewelry which contained cadmium and continued to sell it even after finding out about the contamination . These stories are doubly scary because they are both about products sold to children.
McDonalds recently recalled their Shrek cups after they were found to contain cadmium.
Exposure to cadmium can cause a wide range of effects, depending on the severity of the exposure. Inhaling cadmium causes symptoms resembling a flu, such as coughing, dryness of the throat and nose, dizziness, headache, weakness, chills, fever, or muscle aches. If the inhalation exposure is particularly severe, it can cause bronchitis or life threatening complications such as pneumonitis and pulmonary edema.
Eating something contaminated with even small amounts of cadmium poisons the liver and kidneys (as they try to remove it from your body), causing renal failure and possibly death. This kidney damage is irreversible. Small exposures can also cause bones to become soft and brittle over time, as your body pulls calcium out of bones to compensate for the damage cadmium does to your body.
Testing for cadmium poisoning is different depending on whether the poisoning is acute or chronic. Blood and urine tests are useful for detecting severe acute exposures such as industrial accidents. Chronic exposures, especially at very low doses, is often detected by the damage cadmium does to the organs (kidney, liver, and lung), rather than directly in the blood or urine.
When it comes to cases of serious heavy metal build-up or poisoning, there is a standard treatment method called ‘chelation’ (pronounced key-LAY-shun) that pulls metals out of the body. For more acute poisonings, where blood or urine testing show evidence of heavy metal poisoning, various FDA approved chelators, are injected into the blood stream or muscles for treatment.
The chemicals react and bind to the metals, forming more stable and safe chemicals which are then excreted out of the body. For example, Dimercaprol (also commonly called British Anti-Lewsite, or BAL), pulls lead, arsenic, and mercury from the body and is excreted through urine and bile.
BAL and other injected chelators do not work for all metals and can have serious side effects. Generally, the type of chelator is matched to the specific metal found to be dangerously high. Unfortunately, most chelators have a nasty tendency to also bind to calcium (also a “metal” element), cause immune system decline, and trigger chronic illness for weeks or even months after injection.
They can even cause organ and brain damage, since they do not discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ metals. Where one chelator might remove toxic mercury, it might remove necessary iron and magnesium as well. If you are undergoing chelation therapy, it is important to check with your doctor to see if you need to supplement other metals that may be lost in the process.
The injection method of chelation can be a very harsh treatment. For an individual with a more chronic elevated heavy metal toxicity there are oral chelation agents that work more gently and safely. Captomer, for example, is a chelator in pill form. It is the same chemical compound as one of the common FDA approved injectable agents,
Dimercaptosuccinic acid (abbreviated DMSA), but it is a lower dose that is absorbed more slowly into the blood stream and tissues. In this way, it is considered to be a gentler alternative to injected therapies. On the other hand, there is still potential for risks and side effects similar to those of injected chelators, especially if the dosage or treatment regimen is incorrect or poorly followed.
Complementary and Alternative (CAM) Treatments
Since the western medicine treatments for heavy metal poisoning are considered dangerous and can have rather severe side effects, only severe cases of poisoning are generally treated in this manner. Sadly, this means that people with less severe, but still toxic, levels of heavy metals are often ignored and go untreated.
There are a number of CAM treatments that may offer some assistance in removing excessive heavy metals. Most of these treatments are not well researched scientifically, but they are used clinically and may be of value. Unfortunately, some of these treatments have a common problem. Because they are like sponges soaking up heavy metals in the body, they also tend to soak up heavy metals from the environment.
For example, it has been suggested that eating chlorella, a certain type of algae, can lower toxic metal levels through absorption. Chlorella, unfortunately, also has the habit of absorbing mercury from the water it grows in, and some batches have been found to contain high levels of mercury. Chlorella grown in man made tanks are less likely to contain heavy metals and so would be a safer option.
Another example is calcium bentonite clay which is often recommended to remove heavy metals. The idea behind eating calcium bentonite clay is that it absorbs metals, but cannot be digested by the human digestive system. It passes through the gut, absorbing toxins along the way, and both are then eliminated when the clay reaches the ‘end of the line’. Unfortunately, calcium bentonite clay itself may have elevated levels of lead from the days of leaded gasoline. So while it does remove heavy metals from your body, it may also introduce lead in the process. Not the best choice overall.
Takesumi (bamboo charcoal) is a Japanese product that is a safely used in removing heavy metals from the body. It appears to act in a similar manner to dietary fiber (i.e. absorbing heavy metals in the gut excreted as bile), though in higher amounts, due mainly to the physical nature of charcoal. In Japan, Takesumi is used in baking (bread and cookies) and in personal hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, etc.).
Dr. Michael Lebowitz, D.C., a chiropractor specializing in Applied Kinesiology, started using Takesumi several years ago to treat patients he suspects of having heavy metal toxicity. He has shown some very promising results with this method of treatment. This appears to be a safe method of helping to remove heavy metals and may be considered as an option.
Other popular alternative methods for reducing heavy metals in the body include eating cilantro, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, or the use of colonics. Finally, the use of saunas, hot baths or vigorous exercise (excessive sweating) are traditional methods used for detoxification. Be aware that excessive heat or sweating can be dangerous for the very young, the very old or those with certain health conditions. Check with your physician before undertaking any of these activities.
The treatment of heavy metal toxicity must be carried out carefully with the help of an experienced physician. Before you undergo any treatment for heavy metal toxicity, make sure your physician alerts you to any potential risks and that you consider all possible options to give yourself the best chance of a safe and successful treatment outcome.
When it comes to heavy metals, your most prudent option is to avoid toxic exposures from the start. We have already mentioned many ways you can get exposed to heavy metals. Here are a few suggestions to limit your exposure.
- Fish: limit your intake of fish, especially large predatory fish like tuna or swordfish that sit high on the food chain. While some people can tolerate more than others, it is important for everyone to be cautious. Even small amounts can bio-accumulate in your body (the same way it does in the fish you eat) and increase your overall toxic load. The greater your toxic load the more likely your body will start to suffer symptoms and chronic illness.
- Mineral cosmetics: these may contain heavy metals. Applying these onto your skin or even breathing in the powder during application increases your exposure. Read the labels of your cosmetics to see if you are being exposed through your cosmetics.
- Supplements: Though they are meant to be beneficial to your body, supplements may also be an unexpected source of heavy metals. Several years ago, one of the most popular brands of coral calcium (Barefoot Bob’s) was discovered by independent testers to be tainted with extremely dangerous levels of lead. As with any supplement, it is important to purchase only from a trusted, reliable source that tests their products extensively before selling them to you. For more information on choosing safe supplements see our article discussing what makes a good supplement.
- Lead solder in water pipes: beware of older metal water pipes that may be soldered with lead. The lead leaches into drinking water. If you suspect you have these pipes you should check with a reputable plumber and consider having your pipes replaced with copper.
- Wall Paint: if you live in a home that was built pre-1970’s, you may have your walls painted with lead based paint. This paint may have been covered up over the years, but the original lead paint may still be on the wall. While this older paint is not usually a problem, it becomes a significant problem if old peeling paint is found by an infant or young child. Children love to put things in their mouths and eat the strangest things. If you have young children and you live in an older home, you want to ensure that your child cannot gain access to this older leaded paint.
- Oil Paint: heavy metals make oil paint look really good. That is why you will find cadmium still being used to enhance the color of expensive oil paints. If you use these paints often, it is important that you have proper ventilation in your studio and that you try to keep the paint off your skin. Using gloves or other types of barrier to protect yourself is the best option.
- Pesticides: Synthetic pesticides are poisons. Arsenic is just one of the potential poisons that you could be exposed to while using any kind of pesticide around your home or garden. Be careful to read the instructions very carefully and to ensure that you are using the proper protective gear that is recommended for applying any of these poisons. Better yet, try to find a non-pesticide solution to your problem. There are many options for pest control that do not use synthetic pesticides as the only solution.
Chronic, low-level heavy metal toxicity can contribute to a wide range of illnesses and put stress on your body’s detoxification systems. While it is important to avoid as many sources of heavy metals as possible, contact with many of them is unfortunately inevitable. If you suspect that you are suffering from the symptoms of heavy metal toxicity, you should seek the care of a health care practitioner who is familiar with potential therapies to safely remove any toxic accumulation.