Heavy Metal Health Hazards

leaded-gas-chipped-paint-web.jpgHeavy metals occur naturally in the earth’s crust. So, we are all exposed to small amounts of them on a regular basis. Most of the elements we call heavy metals are not essential to human nutrition. They are toxic and disrupt normal body function.

Fortunately, these elements are hard to absorb in their natural forms and, if they do get absorbed, the body is equipped with detoxification mechanisms to get rid of them. Unfortunately, the industrial revolution involved mining, concentrating and using heavy metals in industry, agriculture and medicine. Thus, modern industrial society exposes us to higher concentrations of these substances. This is compounded by the fact that the detoxification mechanisms for eliminating them require nutrients and many people in modern society are on nutrient-deficient diets.

The result is that heavy metals have become a serious hazard to our health. These elements seem particularly harmful to the nervous system because of its high fat content and many are known to cause neurological disorders. They also tend to disrupt immune function and may contribute to autoimmune diseases and cancer, as well as increased inflammation.

In this artical we’re going to examine these health problems and how we can reduce our exposure to heavy metals. We’re also going to talk about nutrients and supplements we can use to get rid of them. So let’s get started by looking at what heavy metals are.

Understanding Heavy Metals

The term heavy metal refers to a group of elements that have metallic properties and a high molecular weight. This includes mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium, all of which have no nutritional value and are toxic. In natural healing, we also include aluminium, even though it is not technically a heavy metal because it is also toxic and has no nutritional value.

There are also metallic elements that are needed in small amounts, which become toxic in large quantities or in the wrong forms. These include copper, vanadium, chromium, tin, nickel and even iron. We don’t have space to talk about these, even though they are a problem. However, we will cover five common toxic elements, lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and aluminum.

Get the Lead Out

lead-paint-web.jpgLead is of the most dangerous heavy metals. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless, and it can easily go undetected, especially in drinking water, many historians believe that one of the contributing factors to Rome’s downfall was its water supply. Although Rome’s aqueduct system and its famous public baths were a wonder of the  times, they unfortunately used lead pipes. This may have caused neurological disorders that lead to the decadent behavior of Rome’s ruling class.

The problem with lead contaminated drinking water is still with us. It was recently revealed that the municipal drinking water in Flint, Michigan is contaminated with lead. Flint is not alone, as the EPA estimates that the water systems of nearly 2,000 communities in the United States are currently contaminated with lead and other heavy metals. Lead pipes are still present in older buildings, but lead is also used in the solder that joins copper pipes, meaning that newer homes may also have lead in the drinking water.

Lead damages the kidneys and nervous system, and interferes with protein synthesis and red blood cell function. Lead poisoning can be difficult to detect in the initial stages because most of the symptoms show up only in the later stages. Lead can put adults at higher risk for cancer, stroke, kidney disease, memory problems and high blood pressure.  It can cause elevated blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, headaches, memory loss, mood disorders, reduced fertility and miscarriage.

At greater risk are children, whose rapidly growing bodies absorb lead more quickly and efficiently.  It also crosses the blood-brain barrier more quickly. In children, it can cause learning problems, delayed development, loss of appetite, weight loss, hearing loss and digestive problems.

Besides the lead in pipes, lead can be found in old paint, some pottery and batteries. It was once used in gasoline which means small amounts have found their way into our soil and water.  

Mercury Medicine and Madness

quicksilver-mercury-liquid-web.jpgMercury is liquid at room temperature, earning it the name quicksilver. Old fashioned thermometers had mercury in their tubes, which is why the term mercury is used in reference to temperature. Fortunately, this quicksilver form is hard to absorb through the skin. The vapors of mercury, on the other hand, are readily absorbed by the lungs.

Despite its toxicity, compounds of mercury have often been used in medicine. Calomel (mercury oxide) was a common medicine prescribed in the 19th century. Mercury is still in use in medicine.

The “silver” amalgams used in dentistry are mostly mercury, but fortunately are falling out of favor. Some vaccines also contain mercury in the form of a compound called thimerosal.

One wonders about the sanity of using something so toxic as medicine, but mercury is associated with madness. It is known to damage the nervous system causing tremors, mood swings, insomnia, headaches, impaired thought processes and other changes in nervous function. The mad hatter in the story Alice in Wonderland may be based on the fact that hatters used mercury to make felt hats and were often a little odd as a result.

fresh-fish-ice-market-web.jpgBut, the primary way to get mercury poisoning is through something we think of as a health food—ocean fish. Fish tend to collect mercury in their bodies in the form of a very compound, methylmercury, which is readily absorbed when people eat the fish. Some fish contain higher mercury levels than others with swordfish, tuna, shark, grouper, marlin, orange roughy and mackeral being some of the highest sources. For this reason, it is wise to be careful about the source of the fish you eat, although eating fish a couple of times a week is not a problem for the average person.

Mercury is also found in Tattoo inks, some paints, batteries, wood preservatives, explosives, gunpowder and mercury vapor light bulbs (which are dangerous if they break). Besides neurological problems mercury can cause sensations of “pins and needles” in the hands and feet, impair muscle movements causing tremors, contribute to autoimmune diseases, allergies and chemical sensitivities and increase inflammation.

Cadmium: Kidney Damage and Cancer

batteries-cadmium-web.jpgCadmium levels have dramatically increased in the environment due to introduction of rechargeable nickle-cadmium batteries, which are rarely recycled. It is also used in electroplating and found in some paints and fertilizers. Cigarette smoke is biggest way to be exposed to cadmium, but we can also get it from drinking water, foods and plastics.

Cadmium is known to damage the kidneys. Inhaled it causes respiratory illness. It is also known to contribute to osteoporosis and cancer.

Arsenic: Still Poisoning People

Arsenic has often been used to poison people (as was discussed in the play and movie Arsenic and Old Lace), but oddly enough, like mercury, arsenic has been used in medicine. Because of its toxicity it has been used pesticides and herbicides. So, it found its way into water supplies and foods which is where we get our biggest exposure. It’s also used in wood preservatives.

Before you get enough to kill you, exposure to arsenic can cause headaches, confusion, convulsions and stomach pain. It may also contribute to vitamin A deficiency, heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.

A Modern Hazard: Aluminum

aluminium-cans-web.jpgAluminum is one of the most abundant elements in the earth’s crust and a major component of dirt. Normally, aluminum isn’t a big problem because it’s very poorly absorbed. In modern times, however, it’s being presented to us in forms and quantities that do allow small amounts to be absorbed. It is used in cookware, some baking powders, antiperspirant deodorants and medications like antacids. In addition, easily absorbed nanoparticles of aluminum are being sprayed in the upper atmosphere as part of global geoengineering programs. Aluminum, mixed with solvents that make it absorbable, is also replacing mercury in vaccines.

High levels of aluminum are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. It is unknown whether this is the direct cause of the disease or something that happens because of the disease. We do know that aluminum displaces silica, which is essential to brain function. Other possible symptoms of aluminum toxicity include nervousness, immune weakness, softening of the bones and muscle weakness.

Other elements we should be concerned about include nickel, tin, copper, barium, antimony, thallium, vanadium and chromium. Again, the body can handle certain levels of exposure to all of these elements, if it gets adequate nutrients to detoxify them. So, let’s discuss how we can use lifestyle and nutrition to protect ourselves.

Heavy Metal Detoxification

Clearly, we should start by reducing our exposure to heavy metals. Here are a few important tips for doing this.

  • Purify your water!  Heavy metals can enter municipal water supplies through industrial and consumer waste, acid rain or even from pipes. At the very least get a filter system to filter your tap water for drinking and cooking. You can also buy water purified by reverse osmosis coupled with carbon filtration.
  • Buy and prepare fresh organic food as much as possible. Eating organic foods minimizes your exposure to all chemicals, including heavy metals.
  • Avoid cooking with aluminum cookware and foil. Acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus are particularly problematic as they leech aluminum into the food.
  • Use aluminum free baking powder and avoid aluminum based antiperspirant deodorants.
  • Educate yourself about vaccines and make an informed choice about what vaccines, if any, you will allow.
  • Limit intake of fish with a high mercury content. Look for fish that are not harvested from contaminated waters.
  • Have amalgam fillings replaced with composites by a dentist who knows how to remove them safely.
  • Avoid using chemical pesticides, herbicides and other toxic products and replace them with non-toxic natural alternatives.

If you work around chemicals pay attention to safety precautions. Wear appropriate protective clothing.
Remember that it’s better to keep heavy metals out of the body than to try to remove them afterwards.

When to Do a Heavy Metal Cleanse

chemicals2.jpgSevere heavy metal poisoning is best diagnosed and handled by medical professionals. But, constant exposure to low doses of these substances will harm your health in subtle ways, so a periodic heavy metal cleanse is a good idea for most people in modern society.

One way to detect possible heavy metal toxicity is through hair analysis. High levels of heavy metals in your hair are a fairly good indicator that there may be heavy metals in your body.

Also, people who work around chemicals (i.e. painters, beauticians, lab technicians, dry cleaners, carpet cleaners, farmers, and factory workers) that are developing neurological or immune problems will benefit from heavy metal detoxification. People with autism, cancer, neuralgia, memory loss, chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders may also benefit from a heavy metal detoxification program. It is also helpful to do detoxification after dental work—especially if amalgam fillings have been removed.

Basic Heavy Metal Cleanse

The following is a good, basic heavy metal cleanse.  It’s often good to start with a good colon cleansing program before trying to do heavy metal detoxification. Once you’ve cleansed the colon, you can gently assist heavy metal detoxification by taking the following:

  • 2 gel caps of Omega-3 essential fatty acids
  • 1 Heavy Metal Detox or similar heavy metal detoxification formula twice daily
  • 2-4 Algin three times daily

If you have a serious illness, like cancer or an autoimmune disorder, it is often wise to start with half this amount and see how you tolerate it. When taking these supplements make sure your bowels are moving at least two or three times a day and that you are drinking adequate amounts of water. You may wish to add a stimulant laxative like cascara sagrada or triphala, if you have a sensitive colon.  

You should do this cleanse for a minimum of four weeks. You could safely do it for three or four months, but it is probably unnecessary. If you develop any reactions while on the program such as rashes, nausea or headaches slow down and do some colon cleansing for a few days. Then resume the heavy metal detoxification program at a slower pace.

Other Aids to Heavy Metal Detoxification

heavy-metals-test-web.jpgFoot spa baths and drawing baths are also helpful in the process of heavy metal detoxification. If you know someone who has a foot spa you may wish to use it once a week while on the cleanse. If you don’t you can take a drawing bath by putting one cup of any other fine clay (such as Redmond clay) into a warm bath and soaking in it for 15-20 minutes. Take a shower afterwards.

People who work around chemicals a lot can use a good liver formula containing herbs like milk thistle and dandelion as well as vitamin C and N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), which is a precursor to glutathione, one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants.  Heavy metals are known to deplete glutathione, while NAC helps replenish glutathione and remove them.

Remember that we can’t completely eliminate exposure to heavy metals; they are part of the natural environment. We can, however, take steps to ensure that we minimize our exposure to them and give our body what it needs to get rid of them safely.

Suggested Further Reading

The Comprehensive Guide to Nature’s Sunshine Products, 6th edition by Steven Horne and Kimberly Balas
Coming Clean: Your Guide to Detoxification by Steven Horne
Natural Detoxification by Jacqueline Krohn and Frances Taylor