The Metal and The Damage Done: Mercury

Last but not least of the Fearsome Four is Mercury. Next to Plutonium it is the most toxic naturally occurring substance on the planet. It’s a potent neurotoxin that disrupts the development of the central nervous system, posing the biggest threat to pregnant women, children, and teenagers. Pregnant women should take particular care because Mercury easily crosses the blood brain barrier and placenta, and can remain in the body for up to a year –potentially harming a baby’s growing nervous system and brain. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), children exposed to Methylmercury in Utero have trouble with attention, cognitive thinking, memory, language, fine motor and visual spatial skills, Adults with high mercury levels have trouble with vision, motor function, and memory. Low-level symptoms include memory loss, fatigue, insomnia, joint pain, or headache.

That’s because Mercury competes with oxygen for space in red blood cells. When oxygen can’t get through, the body is deprived of energy. That’s why fatigue is a common symptom of mercury poisoning. Scientists are just beginning to understand how chronic, low-level exposure to Mercury can contribute to chronic health problems often seen in adults like heart disease and cataracts. And consumer advocacy groups like the Policy Project warn that the elderly and people with autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure and other heart-disease risk factors may also be vulnerable.

So how do we become exposed to Mercury? Coal-burning power plants are by far, the biggest producers of mercury pollution –spewing about 98,000 pounds of Mercury into the air. Remember the definition of heavy metal? Well from the air, Mercury seeps into the ground and rivers, lakes, and oceans, where it’s absorbed by small micro-organisms like algae. From there, it makes its way up the food chain to bigger and bigger fish –becoming more and more concentrated at each level.  Sadly, once Mercury enters the environment, it never leaves.

Seafood remains the biggest source of exposure though there’s still some debate as to which fish to avoid. Shark, swordfish and tuna seem to be the worst offenders. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding sea bass and halibut as well. See www.ewg.org/safefishlist/ for a more complete list.

Another common source of mercury exposure is the dental amalgam fillings in your teeth. Though the potential harm from this is also hotly debated. The FDA now says amalgam fillings, which contain 50% elemental mercury, may have neuro-toxic effects but doesn’t explicitly advise pregnant women and children against them.

To minimize exposure to this metal, be careful what fish you eat and how often you eat it. Aim low on the food chain and if you have to eat tuna stick to light canned tuna or fresh yellowfin tuna, which are likely to be less contaminated than other types. If you have mercury filings, find a holistic dentist experienced in the removal of mercury fillings and get them replaced with less toxic fillings.

As an added measure of protection, eat seaweed with your fish. It’s a natural “chelator” in the gut. If you hate seaweed then take a selenium supplement (at least 200 micrograms) instead.

The Metal and The Damage Done: Lead

Lead is quite possibly the most dangerous of all the heavy metals because of the damage it can wreak on our bodies. This member of the Fearsome Four is a potent neurotoxin that affects brain development and the nervous system. Too much of it can be deadly.

Originally discovered as a by-product of smelting silver, this metal has been used by humans since the beginning of civilization. Until the 1970s, gasoline was single-handedly responsible for most of America’s lead emissions, and lead-based paint was the second biggest contributor to lead pollution. Before 1955 much of the white colored house paint used nationwide contained up to 50% lead. It wasn’t until the 1970s that government started lowering the allowable levels in paint to < 1%. As much as 86% of homes built before 1978 still contain lead-based paint!

Today one of the main sources of lead exposure in adults is drinking water contaminated from old lead pipes and faucets. Other common but not so obvious sources of lead exposure come through burning candles with lead-based wicks, and for women, using lipstick –many of which have been found to contain alarming levels of lead. In October 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics released it’s report called ‘A Poison Kiss: The Problem of Lead in Lipstick.’ For more information or to download a copy of this report click here or read their Lead in Lipstick FAQs.

It’s estimated that people have anywhere from 125 to 200 mg of lead in their bodies –nearly 1000 times more than or ancestors! High lead levels can damage arteries, cause irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and hypertension. Unfortunately, there is no known level of lead that is safe for humans.

To reduce your exposure to this metal, avoid burning candles made with lead wicks and find natural alternatives to commercial lipsticks. If you drink tap water, run the tap for a few minutes to flush out any standing water from the pipes that may have been contaminated, or install a water-filtration system. And use low or no VOC paints, especially inside your home.

As an extra protective measure, up your intake of both Vitamin C and Calcium (the latter competes for space with the metal and keeps it from entering bone cells!).

Heavy Metal Overload: The Key to Your Unexplained Symptoms?

Have you ever experienced depression, irritability, mood swings, tremors, autoimmune diseases, chronic infections, felt sluggish, or lost in a state of brain fog? Maybe you sought the opinion or help of a medical professional or health care practitioner in diagnosing or treating troublesome symptoms like temporary memory loss, fatigue, insomnia, joint pain, or headaches, only to have them tell you they can’t find anything wrong with you, or your blood work up, that points to a treatable diagnosis?

Even worse, when you get a diagnosis and are treated for it but the symptoms persist! This can often happen because symptoms like these are consistent with a variety of different health problems or conditions –including clinical depression, Lyme Disease, chronic fatigue, even cancer –which makes them hard to pin down.

If you or someone you know has had an experience like this, you may be suffering the effects of heavy metal toxicity. The most abundant and potentially deadly heavy metals in the environment are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, which separately and collectively can damage your nervous, immune, and reproductive systems.

These metals are naturally occurring in soil, present in herbicides and pesticides, and are released into the air via wood-burning stoves, car exhaust, fuel additives like MTBE, and even cigarette smoke. What makes them heavy is their gravity relative to that of water. The scary part is that these metals enter into your body on a daily basis, through your lungs, digestive tract, and skin, and can affect just about anyone regardless of profession or economic status.

Like it or not, if you eat fish, inhale second-hand smoke, drink water, or simply breathe the air, there’s a good chance you’re getting exposed to them and probably more often than you realize.

Chronic exposure to low levels of heavy metals don’t cause health problems right away, so unless you have a an acute case of something like Mercury poisoning   –which manifests distinct symptoms like impairment of peripheral vision, tingling in the hands and feet, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, and impairment of speech, hearing, and walking– then you could be building up exposure over a long period of time which can lead to problems down the road.

When confronted with the symptoms of metal toxicity, most physicians don’t think to look at heavy metals as the underlying cause of the ailment or the disease that may have resulted from it. To confound matters, sensitivity can vary, with some people developing symptoms at lower levels of exposure than others.

The only effective way to remove metals from the body is through a process of either oral or intravenous chelation. This is the natural detoxification process whereby specific organic molecules (usually amino acids) “grab” onto the metal molecules in your body to form complex ring-like structures called chelates that move the metals out. Many amino acids like NAC (N-acetyl Cysteine) and ALA (Alpha Lipoic Acid), and liver supporting herbs like Silymarin (Milk Thistle), as well as sulfur compounds, are chelating agents that help the body excrete metals.