Heavy Metal Toxicity

In today’s world avoiding toxic metals is impossible. Exposure comes from thousands of sources including: inhaled dust, medications, personal care products, water, food, chemicals, cigarettes, dental amalgam fillings, car exhaust, jet fuel, batteries, building materials, and manufacturing. The most toxic and prevalent ones are: lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Aluminum, while technically not a heavy metal, is highly toxic. Other, less toxic and prevalent ones are: antimony, bismuth, nickel, thallium, thorium, tin, tungsten, and uranium. An important fact to understand is that heavy metals have absolutely no function in the body. Their presence, in any quantity interferes with normal function. The only totally safe level is absence. Even low levels have been linked to cancer, heart disease and neurological conditions (including Alzheimer’s, autism and ADD). These toxins are absorbed through the skin, lungs and intestines.

Lead poisoning from water pipes contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire. The term “Mad as a hatter” came from mercury poisoning from felt hats that hat-makers used, causing them to have severe neurological problems. In this century, thousands of Japanese were poisoned from mercury being dumped into the bay.

The levels of lead that were formally deemed “safe” have fallen from 60 micrograms (ucg) per deciliter to 30 to 15. In children, levels as low as 5 ucg have been associated with decreased IQ. Other studies have shown that children with higher than average levels are antisocial, aggressive, and difficult to control. Another study showed that convicted juvenile delinquents had lead levels 10 times higher than a control group. A 2001 study of 3,111 counties found correlation with lead- air pollution and homicide rates. In another study, out of 3,000 different variables, lead levels were found to be the strongest predictor of school disciplinary problems. Use of silicofluorides in water was shown to double the rate of lead absorption. Workers in occupations that involve lead have twice the incidence of brain cancer, based on a 2006 study of 317,000 people. A 2000 study showed that occupational exposure to lead doubled the risk of Alzheimer’s. Lead impairs nitric oxide formation leading to erectile dysfunction and artery inflexibility. Mercury from fillings has been linked to multiple sclerosis, low thyroid function and diminished immune response.

To understand how heavy metals poison the body requires a basic understanding of free radicals and the oxidative damage they create, for these toxic metals mainly act by causing free radical damage to cell membranes. Free radicals are, among other things normal byproducts of metabolism. When their production is “uncoupled” from normal metabolism by toxins, things go wrong. A free radical contains an oxygen molecule that lacks an electron in its outer shell. Oxygen wants that extra electron so it steals it from another molecule thereby “oxidizing” that molecule. This is the exact process whereby rust is created. This creates another free radical from the oxidized molecule and can initiate a chain reaction creating thousands of free radicals. One of the main points of free radical attack is the cell membrane, because it is rich in polyunsaturated fats that can donate an electron. This causes free radical peroxidation leading to membranes that are not fluid, damaging the vital functions of the membrane, including transport of nutrients into the cells, waste out of the cells and loss of intercellular communication. Inside the cells are mitochondria, the powerhouse where energy is created. Since many of the functions of energy production reside in the inner mitochondrial membrane, and since most of the body’s free radicals from normal metabolism are produced here, it is easy to see how vulnerable the mitochondria are to free radical damage. Finally, free radicals attack the cell nucleus, damaging DNA, causing mutations that may lead to cancer. Most of the chronic inflammatory conditions in the body are ultimately caused by free radical oxidation. Heavy metals accelerate free radical production by thousands of times. Therefore they cause much of their damage by oxidation. They also substitute for essential minerals in enzymes, inactivating them.

The body can excrete heavy metals, but in a world in which they are ubiquitous, the intake often exceeds the capacity to excrete. Since, until the industrial revolution, heavy metals were scarce in the environment, the body did not evolve to handle today’s burden. It has been estimated that the total lead content of a person today is 1,000 times that of one 400 years ago. These elements that once resided below ground have been mined to the point where virtually every inch of the Earth’s surface contains measurable amounts. Lead is the fifth most utilized metal in the US. Antimony, often alloyed with lead is also toxic.

Lead causes numerous neurological symptoms, even at very low levels. Arsenic is the most common environmental cause of heavy metal toxicity. It is found in pesticides and fungicides and also enters the environment from volcanic lava and subsequent erosion by water. It is unavoidable! Arsenic causes peripheral nervous system symptoms, interferes with glucose and fatty acid metabolism, and energy production. It blocks production of glutathione a potent free radical inhibitor. Mercury is also everywhere. Aside from volcanic emissions, coal-fired plants spew thousands of tons of mercury into the atmosphere every year. This is absorbed by breathing and from fish that contain mercury that has fallen into the ocean. Incinerated waste, forest fires and numerous chemicals contain mercury. It, too, is a potent neurotoxin. It also causes GI complaints, lung, kidney and cardiovascular complaints. Cadmium is found in zinc and copper containing ores. Human sources include batteries, car tires and cigarette smoke. About 40-60% of inhaled cadmium is absorbed. It causes high blood pressure and kidney damage. An estimated 4-13,000 tons are released each year into the environment. Aluminum is the third most abundant metal on the planet. Mining, acid rain and its use in thousands of products are common sources. It, along with lead is associated with central nervous system disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

There are many ways to test for heavy metals in the body. Probably the best screening method is through head hair. Heavy metals are excreted as hair grows and integrated into hair protein. Spectroscopic analysis of hair levels correlate with whole body levels. Serum testing will only pick up an acute poisoning. Since almost all heavy metal toxicity is chronic, serum testing is useless. This is because, if the body can’t excrete heavy metals, they get stored inside cells, mainly in bone, ligaments and fat. Once a hair analysis has identified excess heavy metal levels, the next step is to perform a urine “challenge” test. First a sample of urine is collected and the levels of heavy metals are measured. Unless there is an acute poisoning they should be very low. Next, a “chelating agent” is given and all urine is collected for the next 6 hours. The chelating agent binds the metals and they are excreted through the kidneys (and feces). If there is a substantial increase in the amounts detected, then heavy metal toxicity is confirmed.

There are a number of chemicals that “chelate” or bind heavy metals, pulling them from storage tissue and making them available for the body to excrete. The two most effective ones are EDTA and DMSA. Over 50 years of research has demonstrated their efficacy and safety. Beginning in the 1950’s lead poisoning became prevalent among employees of lead battery and paint manufacturing and ship building. EDTA was found to effectively treat lead poisoning. Later a study on 283 patients with atherosclerosis showed improvement in 87% of the patients. In the 1960’s another study on 3,000 patients over 6 years showed that 91% of those with cardiovascular disease improved. Numerous other studies repeatedly showed great benefit, with minimal side effects.

There are three ways to perform chelation. The least effective is administration by the oral route. Only a small fraction is absorbed therefore reducing the efficacy. The risk of GI symptoms is higher with the oral route. Intravenous (IV) chelation is the most effective, but has drawbacks, including: cost (up to $200 per treatment), less convenient, requiring up to 3 hours per visit (anywhere from 10-30 or more treatments required), not widely available, possibility of over-stressing the kidneys and you get stuck with a needle each time. The best method, with only one minor drawback is through rectal suppositories (which is the minor drawback). It is relatively inexpensive ( only 10-20% as costly as IV chelation), has a high absorption rate, has been shown to deliver about 36% of what an IV dose does, is easier and less invasive than IV, can be done just before bed, so there is no three hour down-time and avoids the possible GI side-effects of oral chelation. Additionally, because of the slow absorption from the rectal route, it provides a slower, longer acting, gentle chelation that reduces kidney stress.

If you would like to be checked for heavy metals, the place to begin is with a hair analysis of heavy metals and essential minerals. If high levels are detected a challenge urinalysis should be performed. High levels of toxic metals in the urine following a challenge indicate the need for chelation. Lab tests of kidney and liver function should be performed before starting chelation. Chelation will be enhanced by using certain nutriceuticals that assist in removal of toxic metals, prevent oxidative damage from occurring during their removal and replace essential minerals that may also be cheated during the process. Repeat urinalysis testing will show the progress being made.