Heavy Metal Exposure
Heavy metal exposure is implicated in a variety of central nervous system disorders, including Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease. New research reveals its effects on cardiovascular disease and immune disorders. While mercury amalgam fillings are the most common source of inorganic mercury exposure, ongoing research in this field indicates that the problem is much more pervasive than initially thought. After hair and urine analysis show the presence of heavy metals, my patients often ask where they might have been exposed to toxic metals. We now know that there are innumerable sources of heavy metals in the environment, and the problem appears to be increasing.
Common Sources of Heavy Metals
Twentieth century industrialization has led to an increased exposure to heavy metals for everyone. Certain people risk increased exposure because of where they live, their occupation, or their lifestyle. Others may be genetically predisposed to heavy metal accumulation due to poor detoxification systems in their bodies. For these reasons, people in the same household may have vastly different rates of heavy metal accumulation in their bodies.
Heavy metals occur in a variety of household sources. Paint can contain lead, mercury cadmium and antimony. Exposure occurs during the stripping of old paint. Many babies have been exposed to lead in older houses by chewing on painted surfaces. Cooking utensils, such as pots and pans, contain both aluminum and copper. Household disinfectants may contain mercury, copper and silver. The preservatives in treated wood contain arsenic and copper.
Insecticides and fungicides may contain arsenic, antimony and cadmium. Rat poisons often contain salt of thallium. Thallium is a bluish-white metal that enters the atmosphere through coal plants, smelters and mining. It enters the food chain through plants and can also be present in fish and shellfish. Thallium accumulates in the body with age and has been implicated in heart and nervous system disorders. A surprising source of toxic exposure has been revealed to be the sheepskin bedding used as mattress covers by both adults and babies. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is four times higher in New Zealand, where the use of sheepskin mattress covers is common. The body heat of the baby increases the growth of mold in the sheepskin, as well as the release of toxic gasses from arsenic and antimony, which bio-accumulate in sheep. Arsenic and antimony are insecticides in wide use throughout New Zealand.
On the industrial side, automobiles release both manganese and cadmium from the catalytic converter and from tires. Diesel exhaust contains high amounts of nickel and sulfur in the form of sulfur dioxide. Power plants, especially coal-burning plants, release mercury, antimony, arsenic and thallium into the atmosphere. Steel and metal foundries release a variety of toxic metals including lead, arsenic, copper, aluminum, thallium, cobalt and antimony, into the atmosphere. Fertilizer companies commonly buy industrial wastes as a cheap source of zinc and iron. These wastes frequently contain arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as the highly toxic dioxins. These are then sold as fertilizers that are used in production of the commercial food supply. The California Department of Food and Agriculture predicts that food grown with contaminated fertilizers will be the greatest source of industrial toxin exposure to people, resulting in adverse health effects. This alone is a good reason to buy organic food as much as possible.
Sewage sludge contains mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. Human bodies are a source of heavy metals, which are excreted into the bile and eliminated through the stool. Contaminated waste water from industry is another common source of heavy metals ending up in sewage. Sewage is then either burned into the atmosphere or spread back onto the land as “organic fertilizer.”
Organic mercury, known as methyl mercury is extremely toxic. Unfortunately, fish is becoming a significant source of methyl mercury. Not all fish is loaded with methyl mercury. Fish caught in polluted water is obviously going to be higher in methyl mercury. Also, larger fish that eat smaller fish will have concentrated amounts of mercury in their flesh. Large saltwater fish, such as tuna, swordfish, shark, marlin, sea bass and halibut, should be eaten in limited quantities. Freshwater fish such as pike, walleye, large-mouth bass and white croaker also contain high amounts of mercury, and intake should be avoided or limited. The American FDA has put out an advisory that children and pregnant women are not to eat shark, swordfish, tilefish or king mackerel because of the risk of neurological damage from methyl mercury.
Health Effects and Heavy Metal Exposure
Heavy metals affect three main areas of the human body: the nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the immune system. Heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, disrupt nerve cell growth and metabolism. They have been implicated in a variety of nervous system disorders. Recently, it has been discovered that mercury is elevated in the brains of Alzheimer patients. Previously, it was thought that aluminum caused the brain lesions associated with Alzheimer’s, but it now appears that mercury may be the main neurotoxin.
Recent published research on Finnish men has demonstrated a two- to three-fold increased risk for heart attack and cardiovascular disease linked to the mercury in fish. Other research has found an extremely high concentration of mercury and antimony in diseased heart tissue. It appears that heavy metals accumulating in extremely high concentrations in heart muscle may lead to heart failure and electrical instability.
Exposure and Immune Deficits
Exposure to toxic metals has also been linked to immune system deficits, which lead to chronic infections, increased autoimmune reactions, and the growth of cancerous cells. High levels of metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic have been linked to decreased number and activity of white blood cells. This limits resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
Detection of Heavy Metal Exposure
There are three ways to reliably test for heavy metal exposure in the human body. The easiest and cheapest way is to perform a hair analysis. Hair permanently binds heavy metals in levels proportionate to those found in the body. It is best used as a primary screening tool for heavy metals. The limit of hair analysis is that it will only reveal what an individual has been exposed to in the past few months, not previous exposure. Nonetheless, it is often the simplest method to screen for current exposure. Hair will detect the methyl mercury common in fish, but it will not reveal the inorganic type common in amalgam tooth fillings.
The best and most reliable method for heavy metal detection is a urine analysis. In this method, the person being tested is given a chelation treatment before the collection of urine to push out the stored metals from the tissues into the kidneys and then into the urine. DMPS is the preferred chelation substance for mercury, while EDTA is more selective for aluminum and lead. These substances bind some of the heavy metals, which are then excreted through the urine. These two chelation substances are also given in repeated doses to rid the body tissues of heavy metals once they are detected. They are administered intravenously with appropriate supervision. Medical and naturopathic doctors take specialized training in chelation therapy in the safe and appropriate use of these methods of heavy metal detoxification. One should only go to a doctor who has received certification in chelation therapy.
The third method for heavy metal detection is fecal analysis. This is the preferred method for children or people who are have weak kidneys or are extremely chemically sensitive and reactive to chelation. This method is a reliable for detecting metal exposure without the need for a provocative agent.
Heavy Metal Detoxification
The best method to effectively eliminate toxic metals from the body appears to be the chelating agents such as DMPS, DMSA and EDTA. Studies of other substances such as chlorella, cilantro, garlic, and vitamin C indicate very little heavy metal elimination compared to the chelating agents. If one is reluctant or unable to use chelation, then the next best method appears to be high dose IV Vitamin C therapy. Oral vitamin C does not have the same effect as the intravenous method because you reach bowel tolerance before an effective dose is reached.
Infrared saunas are a useful adjunct in assisting the body in the elimination of toxic substances. Furthermore, detoxification of heavy metals is enhanced by the appropriate nutritional support. One of the main substances used by the body to detoxify heavy metals is the amino acid glutathione. Glutathione is made in the body from the amino acid cysteine. Adequate protein intake is necessary to assist the body in the detoxification of metals. Low-protein diets have been associated with decreased elimination of methyl mercury. It is difficult to absorb glutathione as an oral supplement due to breakdown by stomach acid; however, it is very effective when administered intravenously in conjunction with |p|Vitamin C. Other nutrients that are essential during a heavy metal detoxification program are magnesium, potassium, selenium, taurine, and vitamins C and E.
It is essential that, in addition to detoxification of heavy metals, one must eliminate or reduce the source of the heavy metals—whether they are in the air, water, food, or drugs. This may mean to switching to purified water, eating organic foods, eliminating certain fish, using protective gear in occupational exposures, or moving away from heavily polluted cities. Detoxification through chelation will not work if you continue to be exposed to toxic metals.
It is apparent that heavy metal exposure and toxicity is becoming a global problem. We must strive on a social and an individual level to eliminate the use of substances that are highly damaging to the health of humans and the environment. Toxic heavy metals have been shown to affect the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems of the human body. The detection and elimination of heavy metals is a specialized field of medicine that is becoming recognized as essential to the prevention and treatment of critical diseases affecting humans in the twenty-first century.
Dr. Stefan Kuprowsky