Heavy Metal Toxicity and You

By Dr Ernst
May 31, 2017

While most of us have heard of high-profile heavy metal problems such as the Flint, Michigan disaster, it’s a very little-known fact that almost all of us carry a heavy metal “toxic load” to some degree or another.

In this post, we’ll explore how heavy metals get into our bodies, the different heavy metals that pose a toxicity risk and how they affect our health and briefly touch on what we do to relieve the toxic load.

Where do we acquire heavy metal toxicity?

The surrounding environment offers plenty of opportunities for acquiring heavy metal toxicity. Thankfully we’ve come a long way from lead paint and mercury-filled thermometers, but it’s still out there in force. Fish caught near waste dumping sites contain mercury, lead and other toxins. Many older cities have lead pipes that bring water to every home. Cities near smelting sites (where glass or industrial chemicals are manufactured) put copper, zinc and lead into the environment. Pesticides used on crops contain heavy metals, and we can be exposed either by eating those foods or by living near the farms themselves. Some dyes used to color the clothes you wear contain heavy metals. These are some examples.

The most nefarious source of heavy metal toxicity, however, is mom. That’s right, your very own mother. Heavy metals are passed from mother to child, and the rate at which the level of toxicity diminishes is shockingly slow. It can take between four and seven generations for heavy metal toxicity to work its way out of the family tree. So, even though you were born and grew up after the lead paint era, or after the EPA regulated toxic waste dumping in the ocean, or after your city replaced the lead pipes in the water system, it doesn’t mean mom didn’t–or grandma, or great-grandma. Keep that in mind when reading the following section.

Types of heavy metals, their sources, and impact on human health

  • Aluminum – This metal is often used as a water treatment in city filtration plants to remove organic compounds from the water. It is also found in many commonly-administered vaccines. It is metabolized and removed from the body relatively easily but can reach toxic levels. People with renal issues are at particularly high risk for aluminum toxicity. Effects include bone weakness, bone deformities (in children), muscle weakness, sudden changes in one’s mental state, seizures and dementia.
  • Antimony – This is a heavy metal used in many industrial processes and as a flame retardant in everything from toys to clothing to building materials. It rarely presents except in cases where someone works in the manufacturing of these products, or if they are being treated for schistosomiasis or leishmaniasis (both parasitic infections). If levels become toxic, it can lead to depression, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, kidney damage, or liver damage. And prolonged exposure/toxicity, it can cause cancer or Adams-Stokes syndrome (a heart condition leading to frequent fainting and dizziness).
  • Arsenic – Heavy industrial activity is a major cause of arsenic exposure. Most often, it leeches into groundwater that is used as a drinking water supply for surrounding communities. In many parts of the world, it simply occurs naturally and mixes in with the drinking water. The highest risk for naturally-occurring arsenic toxicity in the U.S. is in the Southwest region (S. California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico). It can be inhaled in heavily polluted areas. Until 1970s, it was used as a preservative in cosmetics. Short-term exposure leads to vomiting, abdominal pain, encephalopathy, diarrhea and blood in the stool. Long-term toxicity can lead to thick skin, darkening of the skin, heart disease, and cancer.
  • Barium – Again, this is most often a result of industrial pollution, or working in a manufacturing plant making things using viewing screens (TVs, computer monitors, cell phones, etc.), ceramics, plastic or rat poison. It can contaminate drinking water as well. Prolonged toxicity leads to respiratory failure, kidney damage, neurodegenerative diseases like MS and Parkinson’s, paralysis and irregular heartbeat.
  • Beryllium – A particularly toxic metal, industrial processes using beryllium was banned in the U.S. in the 1950s. But it was often used in mining or as a component of fluorescent light bulbs. Exposure initially causes severe coughing, sore nose and throat, weight loss, labored breathing, anorexia, and fatigue. Long-term exposure leads to berylliosis, a chronic and incurable lung disease.
  • Bismuth – This metal has been used since ancient times as a deodorizer–and it’s still used as such today in products like Devrom (a drug designed to deodorize flatulance). It is also present in Pepto-Bismol, the over-the-counter digestive treatment, and some cosmetics. Over-exposure leads to a blue-black gum line, skin rashes, weight loss, gastrointestinal symptoms and signs of encephalopathy including confusion, disorientation, seizures, and black stools.
  • Cadmium – Regulations in the 1960s severely reduced cadmium exposure. But it can still be found naturally in animal livers (if you eat beef liver for example), or in cigarette smoke and batteries. Interestingly, due to its chemical properties, when the body is deficient in calcium, zinc or iron, cadmium will take the place of these nutrients and start taking root. Long-term toxicity can cause cancer, nerve damage, brittle arteries, sterility, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, emphysema, schizophrenia, and kidney disease.
  • Cesium – One of the least toxic heavy metals, and really only a risk of toxic levels in the body when one is exposed to nuclear fallout. It is used in the production of vacuum tubes, video camera tubs, and microwaves, so exposure can happen if one works manufacturing these items. Toxic levels can lead to arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.
  • Gadolinium – The most common source of gadolinium toxicity comes from a contrast MRI. These special MRIs inject gadolinium into the bloodstream to provide color contrasts that make MRI results easier and more accurate to read. It’s generally considered safe in patients with good kidney function, but some believe these types of MRIs are more dangerous than they let on. Symptoms of poisoning include bone pain, changes in skin pigmentation, muscle twitches, worsening vision, tinnitus, low body temperature, hair loss, loss of balance and swelling of the extremities.
  • Lead – Shockingly, 1 in 5 U.S. children have potentially toxic levels of lead in their bodies. Lead was not banned for use in paint until 1978. Millions of American homes were built before then, and anytime one of these homes is demolished, remodeled, the paint chipped away and lead in the form of dust coats the surrounding area. Lead dust is one of the most common sources of toxicity. Pipes for water systems that haven’t been replaced since the 1930s are often made of lead (there are still many cities with pipes that are old). To this day, lead is used as a solder to join pipes and pump components together. After about five years, mineral deposits coat the pipes and protect the water. But surprisingly, any home that is less than five years old, according to the EPA, should be considered a lead hazard. Lead also finds its way into imported consumer goods, including toys. Many countries whose economies depend heavily on manufacturing do not have the same regulations. Symptoms of lead poisoning include abdominal pain, aggressive behavior, irritability, headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, numbness and tingling, memory loss, kidney dysfunction, anemia, vomiting, seizures, coma, encephalopathy.
  • Mercury – The most common sources of mercury poisoning are eating fish and amalgam fillings in the teeth. However, it can make its way into someone who is involved in gold mining or who works at a coal-burning facility. Mercury makes its way UP the marine food chain. The higher a fish is on the food chain, the more mercury it is likely to have. A shark, for example, will have more mercury (generally speaking) than a sardine. And who is at the very top of the food chain? You are. Symptoms of mercury toxicity include muscle weakness, poor coordination, numbness in the hands and feet, skin rashes, anxiety, memory problems, trouble speaking, trouble hearing, or trouble seeing. Long-term exposure literally lowers your intelligence and can shut down kidney function.
  • Nickel – Metal braces in the teeth are a common source of nickel exposure, as is exposure to jewelry. It is also an inhalation risk if one works in refining, welding or electroplating. Symptoms of toxicity include kidney and liver damage, infertility, neurological dysfunction, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological deficits, developmental deficits in childhood, and high blood pressure. It is also thought to mimic the effects of estrogen and raises the risk of breast cancer.
  • Palladium – This metal is a very low risk as the human body has a very difficult time absorbing it. However, exposure has been linked to bone marrow, liver damage, kidney damage, and cancer in laboratory animals. Some dental alloys used in caps and fillings contain palladium, and it is naturally occurring in the soil of some regions (mainly Montana in the U.S.).
  • Platinum – Like palladium, platinum is not absorbed easily by the human body. Exposure can occur as an occupational risk for those working with copper, though it is used in some chemotherapy drugs as well. Long-term effects are not well-understood, but acute exposure can cause dermatitis, irritation of mucus membranes, shortness of breath and wheezing, development of chronic allergic reactions, nephritis, and immune system suppression.
  • Tellurium – Exposure to this metal will be mostly industrial as it is used in the production of semiconductors, solar panels, explosives, and rubber. Mostly what is known is that it can harm or kill embryos and causes “tellurium breath,” an odor from the mouth similar to garlic.
  • Thallium – This metal is particularly threatening as it is ubiquitous due to its widespread use in pesticides. Many people are thallium toxic as a result. Damage to the nervous system can occur in as little as three days after acute exposure, leading to loss of reflexes, convulsions, muscle wasting, headaches, numbness, dementia, psychosis, and coma. Longer-term exposure causes hair loss and arrhythmia.
  • Thorium – Exposure may occur if one works in a plant producing gas lanterns or refractory materials. However, in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, it was often used as a radiographic tool to enhance the appearance of certain aspects of an X-ray and injected into the bloodstream. As thorium decays, the loss of isotopes turns it into radon within ten years and after another 6-7 years, it becomes lead. It has been linked to the eventual development of leukemia, granulomas, and malignant liver tumors.
  • Tin – Exposure to tin comes mostly from canned food and silverware. It is among the least toxic heavy metals despite being easily absorbed by the human body. It has not been extensively studied for toxicity, but has been associated with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Tungsten – This metal is used in the production of a wide range of products including light bulbs, cell phones, computers, tools, electrodes, bullets, x-ray tubes, ceramics, as well as flame retardant and dye for clothing. Its widespread use means it is a risk for air, soil and water pollution. This is linked to an increase in the occurrence of strokes. But like many heavy metals, it affects mental functioning, breathing, kidney function and can cause seizures.
  • Uranium – There is an acute risk of uranium poisoning in areas where toxic waste has been stored. It can leech into the soil and water where it makes its way to communities. This is depleted uranium, which is chemically different from un-depleted uranium, which can actually have some health benefits. However, exposure to depleted uranium (or high levels of un-depleted uranium) can lead to kidney damage and kidney failure. The most harmful method of exposure is inhalation in the form of uranium dust, which is most often seen in war zones where a specific type of ordinance is used. This leads to lung cancer, osteoporosis, mental degeneration, and can contribute to diabetes and obesity.

Getting rid of heavy metals

The first step is taking a heavy metals test (see a results example in the image above) as each type of metal may require a unique approach.

Heavy metals are especially challenging to extract from the body, particularly as many of them settle into bone tissue or deep in the brain. Removing them requires several lifestyle changes (to avoid further toxification) and usually chemical chelation. This is where supplements like activated charcoal are taken to chemically bind with heavy metals so they can be flushed out. Care must be taken so that the mechanism by which these toxins are flushed out is maintained, as there exists the possibility that they can be “stirred up” in the body and cause even more damage.

If you would like to undertake heavy metal detoxification, please do so under professional supervision. This is something I can help with. If you’d like, get in touch.



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