Heavy Metal Toxicity

plums of toxic gases

Heavy Metal Toxicity

This month’s newsletter focuses on heavy metals; minerals which are toxic to the body. We’ll talk about how they enter our bodies, what symptoms they can cause, how to test for them, and how to remove them from our bodies. I decided to address this topic this month because a parenting magazine I subscribe to featured an article on lead exposure in children. Shortly after reading the article, I heard of the recalls of huge numbers of children’s toys because of lead in the paint on these toys. In addition, I also heard a very interesting radio segment on contamination of fish and which fish are healthy for us to eat. (Links to each of these stories will appear at the end of the newsletter).

Sources of heavy metals:
Our exposure to heavy metals has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, mostly because of industrialization. Heavy metals appear in the air we breathe, the foods we eat, and the water we drink and bathe in. Unfortunately, some of these toxic elements can remain in the environment long after the original source of exposure is gone.
The heavy metals, and their sources, that commonly cause problems in humans are:
• Lead: in water pipes (check your city’s water supply), pesticide sprays, some cooking utensils, paint in homes built before 1978, paint in some children’s toys and jewelry, in cigarettes, in some dietary supplements.
• Mercury: in “silver” dental fillings, contaminated fish, latex paints, some cosmetics, adulterated Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines
• Cadmium: batteries, lead/zinc smelters, plastics production, paints, cigarettes
• Arsenic: adulterated Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines, seafood and rice (especially from Asian countries)
• Nickel: cigarettes, industry
• Aluminum: in antacids and some cookware, some drinking water

What do these heavy metals cause?:
Exposure to heavy metals can result in a variety of symptoms. The effects vary with the mode and degree of exposure as well as with the individual’s age, general ability to metabolize and detoxify, and genetic predisposition to disease. Of course, short term exposure at high levels can be far easier to recognize than chronic, low-level exposure which can cause more subtle problems to arise. Children are most susceptible to the toxic effects of heavy metals. This is in part due to their low body weight and high growth rate but also because they are more susceptible to accidental exposures. Pregnant and nursing women should also be especially careful in attempting to avoid exposure to these metals as some of them cross the placenta and can be found in breast milk.

Toxic elements can accumulate in human tissue- especially fat and bone. Systems in the body particularly sensitive to heavy metals are the gastrointestinal, neurological, cardiovascular, immune, and urological systems.
The symptoms of heavy metal toxicity can mimic other treatable disorders. Early signs of heavy metal poisoning can be vague. They may include (but are not limited to) the following: high blood pressure, headache, fatigue, impaired ability to think or concentrate. More severe toxicity can produce the following symptoms: muscle pains, indigestion, tremors, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal upset, anemia, dizziness, poor coordination.
There is strong clinical evidence pointing to the role of heavy metals in “neurodevelopmental disorders” (like ADHD and other learning disabilities) and “neurodegenerative conditions” (like Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease). In addition, heart disease, impaired kidney function, respiratory illness, decreased immune function, gastrointestinal dysfunction, infertility, and increased cancer risk have all been linked with chronic exposure.

How is heavy metal toxicity tested for?:
Physicians screen for toxic metals using various tests. The best method depends on the type of metal and time frame of exposure. Diagnosis can take place through analysis of blood, hair, or urine.
– Conventional medical doctors routinely check infants for lead exposure. You can ask your pediatrician to do a blood test to determine your child’s blood lead levels. Conventional laboratories also offer testing for many other heavy metals. Blood tests monitor current exposure.
– Hair analysis can be a good gauge of long-term exposure with hair levels reflecting the body’s tissue levels of some metals, especially mercury.
– Urine tests monitor current exposure. Using a “chelating agent” which targets specific toxic elements and “draws them out of tissues” can be a helpful way to monitor tissue levels. This is the method I most often recommend.

Who should get tested?:
– Children or adults with symptoms of exposure should consult a physician to decide whether testing is warranted.
– Those employed in high risk occupations: welding, metal working, mining, battery production, aerospace workers, optical fiber and lighting manufacturers, dentists, jewelry workers, those working extensively with paints, plumbers, oil refiners/petrochemical producers.

How can I minimize my exposure to heavy metals and maximize their excretion?:
– I believe that it is very important to begin by saying that the human body continuously eliminated toxins (including heavy metals) through the feces, urine, hair, sweat, nails, and skin.
– The most essential thing one can do is try to avoid undesirable exposure. Be careful of what you eat and drink and what you apply to your skin and the chemicals you use in the home or at work. Use only cold water for cooking and drinking (heat tends to allow more toxins to leach into the water). Thoroughly clean fruits and vegetables before consuming. Minimize consumption of fish which are known to be high in heavy metals and other contaminants (see website link below). Take care in purchasing supplements and herbs (see my newsletter on choosing a multivitamin). If you have small children, be aware of recalls on toys and try to avoid having children suck on “fake jewelry” or put small toys in their mouths.
– A healthy diet containing plenty of water-soluble fiber (guar gum, oat bran, pectin, and psyllium), purified water, and antioxidants (in a diverse array of fruits and vegetables) is very important. Eating a diet high in sulfur-containing foods (such as garlic, onions, and eggs) can help in the detoxification process. Fresh cilantro has also been referred to in the literature as a potent natural agent which helps to remove heavy metals from the body.
– In addition, minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, and chromium can be helpful in reducing absorption of some heavy metals and protecting against its harmful effects. Deficiencies in some of these minerals can enhance absorption of heavy metals. Vitamin C and B-complex may also be helpful.
– Naturopathic physicians and medical doctors are trained to perform heavy metal chelation in cases in which there is strong laboratory evidence to suggest poisoning.

Where can I get more information:
– Parents magazine: recent article about lead in children: http://www.parents.com/parents/story.jsp?storyid=/templatedata/parents/story/data/1186504265235.xml
– Scorecard website (a national nonprofit environmental advocacy group which is a resource for information about pollution and toxic chemicals in your zip code area): http://www.scorecard.org/
– Leonard Lopate Show on WNCY story about Kid-safe Seafood: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/episodes/2007/08/28/segments/84580
– Kid Safe Seafood website: http://www.kidsafeseafood.org/home.php
– A site comparing water filters: http://www.waterfiltercomparisons.net/WaterFilter_Comparison.cfm

Please Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a licensed health care practitioner is recommended for anyone suffering from a health ailment. You are free to use the information.

Dr. Leat Kuzniar ND
Dr. Leat Kuzniar ND

Dr. Kuzniar is a board member of the New Jersey Association of Naturopathic Physicians and is also a member of the Gastroenterology Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She currently holds a State of Vermont Naturopathic Physician license (as New Jersey does not yet offer licensing for Naturopathic doctors).