We live in a toxic World, and it’s only getting more so. Despite our best efforts, it’s impossible to completely avoid taking in toxins. We ingest toxins with our food and water, we breathe toxins in through the air, and we absorb toxins through our lifestyle choices. Some of the most pervasive and dangerous toxins we absorb are heavy metals, particularly lead, cadmium, and mercury. No amount of these metals is good for the body, and no one will be able to completely eliminate them. Because we can’t control the amount we intake from the environment, it’s all the more important that we eliminate the amounts of these metals we get from other pathways. Let’s first look at each of these metals and how they can damage your health.
Mercury: Even small amounts of mercury may cause serious health problems. It may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive, immune systems, and on the lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes. Like other heavy metals, mercury is a neurotoxin that accumulates in your tissues and is generally not flushed away. As you take it in over your lifetime, the total amount in your body continues to build. Mercury can eventually damage your central nervous system and brain as you get older if you take in enough. High levels of mercury can impair a child’s physical and mental development, including motor skills, learning capacity, and memory. Pregnant women have to be particularly careful about mercury uptake since mercury can interfere with the development of their unborn babies. Too much mercury can cause birth defects that center on the nervous system and brain development, including loss of IQ.
Cadmium: Cadmium is toxic even at low levels, and can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and cramping. Chronic exposure to cadmium can lead to kidney disease, lung disease, immune system problems, nervous system problems, fragile bones, low birth weight, and an increased risk of lung cancer. Cadmium exposure in children is linked to learning disabilities and participation in special education. Children with higher cadmium levels are three times more likely to have learning disabilities. Cadmium exposure during pregnancy can disturb zinc transfer to the fetus, interfere with glucocorticoid balance, and affect the regulation of insulin growth factor-related proteins, which can cause fetal growth retardation, low weight or height of the newborn.
Lead: Lead as well is a toxic heavy metal that can only do harm to the human body. No amount of lead is safe, and like other heavy metals, it continues to accumulate in the body over time. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Symptoms in adults can include high blood pressure, abdominal pain, constipation, and joint and muscle pain. In children, symptoms include developmental delay, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite, fatigue, weight loss, vomiting, abdominal pain, hearing loss, and constipation. These symptoms may not immediately be understood as coming from lead exposure. Higher doses of lead intake can cause more acute problems, such as kidney and nervous system damage, and very high amounts of lead could cause seizures and death. Younger children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, as its effects on the central nervous system and the brain can have a severe impact on their mental development. It can cause lower IQ, decreased ability to pay attention, and underperformance in school. Lead can pass from a mother to her unborn baby. Lead in the blood during pregnancy can increase the risk for miscarriage, and cause the baby to be born too early or too small. It can hurt the baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system.
Obviously, there are many more toxins that can affect the body, but heavy metals accumulate in our tissues, are never any help to us, and although they can’t be completely avoided, there are a number of ways to decrease your exposure- mostly by avoiding the sources of these heavy metals as much as you can. These metals can also be tested for through a urine test, as ordered by your physician. A comprehensive heavy metal test will not only identify the three common and dangerous heavy metals that we’ve discussed but also many more toxic metals that could be affecting your health. Why bother getting tested for heavy metals? Well, testing is always an excellent place to start if you have any symptoms or risk factors. Given that heavy metal symptoms can be subtle at first, but that the metals accumulate in your body over the decades, you could end up quite sick from these metals after years of toxic accumulation. Testing is a way to surveil your body for which metals are present in detectable amounts and which may have accumulated to the point where there may be danger involved. Discovering which metals, at which levels, are in your body allows you to alter your behavior by avoiding those actions that may continue to absorb those metals at a dangerous rate. Once you know which toxins to be concerned about, you’ll know which actions to take.
There is another very good reason to have a comprehensive heavy metal test- especially if you have risk factors, think you might have been exposed to larger amounts of these toxic substances, or are having symptoms that could be metal toxicity- there is a treatment for toxic metal exposure that can help remove those metals from your body. This treatment is called intravenous chelation therapy. Other intravenous therapies may be able to remove other toxins, toxic metal chelation therapy is specifically for toxic metals. Here’s how it works: a liquid containing a chelating agent is administered intravenously by your healthcare professionals. The chelating agent binds with heavy metals in your body and forms a structure that can be eliminated through your urine, thus purging your body of metals. It may require more than one session to make significant progress. It makes sense to have a heavy metal test prior to considering chelation therapy, and afterward so that you can continue to monitor your metal levels. Your healthcare provider will be able to counsel you on these procedures. Even if you don’t have high levels of toxic metals in your body, a heavy metal test can be a good way to establish your risk, and perhaps to direct you to other natural treatments. If you have risk factors, particularly, you might be inclined to assess your toxic metal levels.
What are some risk factors for heavy metal exposure? These metals can be all around us, and there are a surprising number of ways that you can take up these metals. Any means of exposure that you can limit could help your lifetime exposure to these metals. If any (especially several at once) of the following are true for you, then you might consider testing for toxic and heavy metals:
3) You live in a house built before 1978. Before 1978, it was extremely common to use lead-based paint for houses because the paint was so durable. In 1978 the United States banned the use of lead-based paint for houses, but many houses built before then still have at least some areas where the original paint still exists on the house. A 2021 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that more than half of the more than 1 million children tested under six had detectable levels of lead in their bodies. Young children are particularly susceptible to ingestion of lead paint chips because of their proclivity to put things in their mouths. Even buildings where the lead paint has been scraped off can still have lead-containing paint chips scattered about. The same JAMA study found that the percentage of young children with detectable lead levels increased significantly when the group living in pre-1950s buildings were examined. If you are an adult, you aren’t likely to be putting paint chips in your mouth, but you’ve still been potentially exposed if you live in an older building- particularly if you’ve done any renovating or been around the house when the renovation was done.
4) You eat a lot of tuna or other large fish. Mercury pollution of waterways has long been known, and not just of waterways but of much of our ecosystem. Mercury contamination is widespread across western North America in air, soil, sediment, plants, fish, and wildlife. The primary reason is because of pollution from power plants and industry. Once mercury is released into the environment, it can be converted to a biologically toxic form of methylmercury by microorganisms found in soil and in the aquatic environment. Mercury is a concern because it is absorbed easily into the food chain. The harmful methylmercury form of mercury readily crosses biological membranes and can accumulate to harmful concentrations in the exposed organism and become increasingly concentrated up the food chain. It’s theoretically possible that eating a lot of big game could increase your mercury levels, but it’s more likely to ingest mercury when consuming predators. Why? Because just like in humans, the mercury stays in the body of wildlife and anytime that body is consumed by a predator, that mercury is concentrated by adding to the predator’s lifetime load of mercury. We don’t eat many land predators, but we do eat fish- and almost all are predators. The biggest fish concentrate the mercury the most from all of the fish that they ate (and that those fish ate, and so on). Big fish that we consume frequently include tuna, swordfish, halibut, seabass, halibut, pike, etc. These fish concentrate the most mercury, particularly fish like tuna and swordfish which are voracious predators. Some species of tuna have less mercury, like skipjack, but Albacore tuna and the various species used for sushi usually have more.
5) You eat a lot of chocolate- especially dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has rightly been promoted in recent years for the benefits it can bring to the body. The higher the cacao content, the greater the benefits. Not only do high cacao content dark chocolates have far fewer carbs (sugars), but the higher the cacao content, the higher the levels of the beneficial effects- the fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and other minerals; and the organic compounds that function as antioxidants, including polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins. All good stuff, but dark chocolate has a heavy metal problem. A groundbreaking study of dark chocolate products done by Consumer Reports, found that many brands of dark chocolate products had relatively high levels of cadmium and lead in them. It made no difference if the brand was high-end or low-end, organic or not. Some organic brands had very high levels of both heavy metals, while some standard supermarket brands also did, while others were reasonable. A follow-up study of a wider range of chocolate products that included milk chocolate, chocolate chips, and brownie mixes found that some of these products also have quite high levels of lead, cadmium, or both. In fact, Consumer Reports found that ⅓ of all of the chocolate products they tested were high (in their estimation) in cadmium, lead or both. Dark chocolate skewed the worst by far. Some products were very high indeed, while others were deemed relatively safe. The good news is that the confectioner’s industry association pushed for this testing as part of a campaign to make things safer in the industry. There are no federal standards for ppm for heavy metals in foods (only California regulates this amongst states), so industry self-regulation is welcome and responsible. Both lead and cadmium contamination come from the soil. Part of this endeavor determined that lead contamination happened after the harvest of the cacao pods, so it was due to soil and dust contamination as the pods were laid out to dry. The Confectioner’s Association has laid out new suggested standards as part of this campaign that suggests rack drying off the ground among other suggestions. These standards could significantly lower lead contamination of chocolate within a year if everyone cooperates. Cadmium contamination is more difficult as it comes from the soil the cacao is grown in. Consumer Reports notes, however, that some companies have achieved much lower levels of cadmium and lead contamination because of shifting production to areas with low cadmium levels or by blending cacao from multiple regions. There is hope in the future that this will make a big difference. For now, shop with care, lower your chocolate consumption, and get tested for your levels of heavy metals if you’ve been a heavy chocolate consumer, especially if you’ve been eating dark chocolates for their health benefits.
6) You don’t get enough iron in your diet. Iron needs to be balanced in your diet. You don’t want too much iron- it’s very hard on your organs over the long term and causes all kinds of conditions. Too little iron can cause anemia. In addition, too little iron means that your body can uptake a larger than usual amount of both cadmium and lead when you are exposed to them- this supercharges that exposure.
7) You smoke tobacco. Cigarette smoke contains cadmium that can be absorbed through the lungs. Tobacco is a highly processed commodity- we all know this. As a result, there are many harmful chemicals that can be added to tobacco. Tobacco itself, just like cacao, absorbs cadmium from the soil. When you smoke tobacco, you are delivering cadmium directly to your lungs, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Secondhand smoke, as well, contains cadmium, and passive inhalers are likely to absorb some. If you smoke (particularly for a long time), or are frequently around one or more smokers, perhaps you should take a heavy metal test.
8) You’ve used or have toys, cosmetics, or supplements manufactured outside the United States by countries that don’t regulate lead as we do. The United States has gone to great lengths to eliminate lead-based products for consumer use when any alternatives are available. Today, despite high lead levels among children, the amount of detectable lead has fallen. Those who have risk factors still may have lead exposure, but the banning of lead paint, leased gasoline, and in other consumer products has led to a continually falling level of lead contamination among the general population. It’s still somewhat high, but it used to be much higher. Some other countries don’t have anywhere near the control over lead in consumer products, these can include cosmetics, toys, and some herbal medicines.
Remember that heavy metals continue to build up in the body, so every exposure counts. Take a test, and if warranted, get treatment. Since some things are definitely in your control, limit exposure wherever you can. Make sure you’re getting enough iron and calcium in your diet- this can limit the uptake of heavy metals. You can also test your iron and calcium levels through your practitioner.