The Impacts of Heavy Metal Toxicity
If you have any of the following symptoms, then heavy metal toxicity could be adversely affecting your health:
- Mental “fogginess”
- Anxiety and depression
- Deteriorating eye health
- Memory problems
- Poor kidney function
- Digestive problems
- Tingling sensations in the hands, feet, and/or around the mouth
- Poor immune function (recurrent infections, autoimmune disease)
Multiple heavy metals exist in the earth’s crust, and myriad undertakings of human activities results in practically everyone being exposed to these elements in the air, water, and food supply.
As far back as 2007, the World Health Organization stated that heavy metals that accumulate in the environment, “. . . are associated to different degrees with a wide range of conditions, including kidney and bone damage, developmental and neuro-behavioural disorders, elevated blood pressure, and potentially even lung cancer.”1
The heavy metals in the environment most commonly linked to adverse health problems include:
Mercury is a silvery, metallic, very malleable, liquid element (think Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character from Terminator 2) that is very toxic, even in extremely small amounts. Mercury is ubiquitous in the environment, partly because of 50 tons of it being released into the atmosphere annually in the United States (yes, that’s 100,000 POUNDS every year) from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants.
Mercury vapor in the air can be inhaled, as well as falling to the earth in precipitation, which can contaminate streams, rivers, lakes, and ultimately the oceans. Bacteria in these bodies of water change what is called “inorganic” mercury into “organic” methylmercury. The cascading problem that results is that methylmercury is far more readily absorbed into the body than inorganic mercury is.
So, when we eat fish, shellfish, and other species from bodies of water that contain methylmercury, we can become toxic.
Mercury is also found in dental amalgams – “silver fillings” – that dentists have used for more than a century to repair cavities. Dental amalgams are usually one-half mercury, with the remainder consisting of silver and tin. When we chew or drink hot beverages, a small amount of mercury vapor from a filling can be released, which we then inhale and absorb.
Mercury is used in vaccines as a preservative, such as in the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine, although this practice has now largely been eliminated by pharmaceutical companies. The brain and nervous system are especially sensitive to long-term mercury exposure, with babies being the most sensitive to mercury’s negative health effects.
Lead is less ubiquitous in the environment than mercury, mostly because lead is no longer used as a gasoline additive. And although lead is no longer being used as a paint additive, homes built before its 1978 ban can still contain some lead-based paint. Removing lead-containing paint without using the proper personal protective equipment can result in lead toxicity.
Lead is still being used to manufacture car batteries. And individuals can also come into contact with lead from lead water pipes in houses or the lead solder used to weld copper water pipes.
The soil and water in areas where lead mining activities have taken place can become very contaminated with lead. Children growing up in these areas are the most vulnerable to lead’s harmful effects, which can result in serious developmental delays, nervous system damage, and even death.
Used in battery manufacturing and other heavy industries, cadmium exposure can damage the kidneys, lungs, and liver. Like mercury, lead, and the mineral zinc, cadmium occurs naturally in the earth’s crust, as well as in lead and zinc ores.
Tobacco smoking can expose a smoker to cadmium if the tobacco plant has accumulated cadmium in the environment, especially from the soil. Rice also tends to accumulate cadmium, especially if the rice is grown in areas that formerly grew tobacco or cotton, as in some areas in the southeastern United States.
Arsenic is present in the environment from agricultural runoff, cigarette smoke, and its former use in pressure-treated wood. Chronic exposure to arsenic can initiate cancers, cognitive dysfunction, diabetes, and heart and lung damage.
What do we do about heavy metal toxicity?
Before beginning any sort of treatment modality for heavy metal toxicity, it is imperative to consult with your health professional and have some testing done to determine if you do have heavy metal toxicity and the extent of the toxicity.
After making the necessary lifestyle changes to prevent further exposure and undergoing the treatment you and your health professional agree on, be sure you have follow-up testing performed after a sufficient interval recommended by your practitioner so you can determine how well the treatment is working.
How is heavy metal toxicity treated?
Some health professionals recommend the use of pharmaceutical methods, including substances that bind to – or chelate – the heavy metal and cause its removal from the body. These include substances such as DMSA, DMPS, and EDTA. Although these chelating agents can be effective, they must be used in conjunction with a practitioner’s consultation to ensure they don’t cause side effects.
Other practitioners utilize nutrient cofactors or botanical extracts that can either bolster the body’s normal and natural ability to eliminate these toxins, or to bind to the heavy metals to facilitate their elimination. These cofactors and nutrients can include substances that are supported by some research, like cilantro and chlorella, as well as other substances that are commonly contaminated with heavy metals themselves, like zeolites.
What can you do to support limiting heavy metals?
Most individuals will encounter heavy metals in the environment but not at levels that need to be treated by a health professional. However, there are still ways to best support keeping levels low and within the normal range.
- Health risks of heavy metals from long-range transboundary Air Pollution. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/europe/publications/i/item/EUR-06-5067592. Published October 1, 2007. Accessed January 11, 2023.
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