• Heavy Metal Toxicity

Heavy Metal Toxicity


Some elements can accumulate in tissue causing toxic effects. Metal toxicity is a significant environmental health concern. A toxic load of lead, cadmium, mercury or arsenic is capable of rendering considerable damage to the brain and nervous system, particularly in children. Toxic metals produce their many negative effects through various mechanisms.

The more common heavy metal exposure is usually mercury and lead. Mercury can be found in fish, amalgams, and thimersol (vaccines). Lead can be found in pipes, children’s toys, paint and the water supply through lead pipes in old homes built especially before 1978.

Analysis of elements in urine provides diagnostic information on potentially toxic elements such as lead, mercury, cadmium, nickel, beryllium, arsenic and aluminum. Urine element analysis is an invaluable tool for the diagnosis or confirmation of toxic element burden and monitoring of detoxification therapy. Two tests are required for assessment: a first morning urine and a post- provocative challenge.   The first test consists of a morning urine collection looking for current exposure of heavy metals. The second test requires taking a chelating agent and collecting urine for 6 hours afterwards to determine what your body may be storing.

Your Naturopathic Physician can provide the test kits and treatment recommendations according to test results.



Aluminum, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Mercury

Although aluminum is not a heavy metal (specific gravity of 2.55-2.80), it makes up about 8% of the surface of the earth and is the third most abundant element (ATSDR ToxFAQs for Aluminum). It is readily available for human ingestion through the use of food additives, antacids, buffered aspirin, astringents, nasal sprays, and antiperspirants; from drinking water; from automobile exhaust and tobacco smoke; and from using aluminum foil, aluminum cookware, cans, ceramics, and fireworks (ATSDR ToxFAQs for Aluminum).

Studies began to emerge about 20 years ago suggesting that aluminum might have a possible connection with developing Alzheimer's disease when researchers found what they considered to be significant amounts of aluminum in the brain tissue of Alzheimer's patients. Although aluminum was also found in the brain tissue of people who did not have Alzheimer's disease, recommendations to avoid sources of aluminum received widespread public attention. As a result, many organizations and individuals reached a level of concern that prompted them to dispose of all their aluminum cookware and storage containers and to become wary of other possible sources of aluminum, such as soda cans, personal care products, and even their drinking water (Anon. 1993).

However, the World Health Organization (WHO 1998) concluded that, although there were studies that demonstrate a positive relationship between aluminum in drinking water and Alzheimer's disease, the WHO had reservations about a causal relationship because the studies did not account for total aluminum intake from all possible sources. Although there is no conclusive evidence for or against aluminum as a primary cause for Alzheimer's disease, most researchers agree that it is an important factor in the dementia component and most certainly deserves continuing research efforts. Therefore, at this time, reducing exposure to aluminum is a personal decision. Workers in the automobile manufacturing industry also have concerns about long-term exposure to aluminum (contained in metal working fluids) in the workplace and the development of degenerative muscular conditions and cancer (Brown 1998; Bardin et al. 2000). The ATSDR has compiled a ToxFAQs for Aluminum to answer the most frequently asked health questions about aluminum. Target organs for aluminum are the central nervous system, kidney, and digestive system.


Arsenic is the most common cause of acute heavy metal poisoning in adults and is number 1 on the ATSDR's "Top 20 List." Arsenic is released into the environment by the smelting process of copper, zinc, and lead, as well as by the manufacturing of chemicals and glasses. Arsine gas is a common byproduct produced by the manufacturing of pesticides that contain arsenic. Arsenic may be also be found in water supplies worldwide, leading to exposure of shellfish, cod, and haddock. Other sources are paints, rat poisoning, fungicides, and wood preservatives. Target organs are the blood, kidneys, and central nervous, digestive, and skin systems (Roberts 1999; ATSDR ToxFAQs for Arsenic).


Lead is number 2 on the ATSDR's "Top 20 List." Lead accounts for most of the cases of pediatric heavy metal poisoning (Roberts 1999). It is a very soft metal and was used in pipes, drains, and soldering materials for many years. Millions of homes built before 1940 still contain lead (e.g., in painted surfaces), leading to chronic exposure from weathering, flaking, chalking, and dust. Every year, industry produces about 2.5 million tons of lead throughout the world. Most of this lead is used for batteries. The remainder is used for cable coverings, plumbing, ammunition, and fuel additives. Other uses are as paint pigments and in PVC plastics, x-ray shielding, crystal glass production, and pesticides. Target organs are the bones, brain, blood, kidneys, and thyroid gland (International Occupational Safety and Health Information Centre 1999; ATSDR ToxFAQs for Lead).


Mercury is Number 3 on ATSDR's "Top 20 List" is mercury. Mercury is generated naturally in the environment from the degassing of the earth's crust, from volcanic emissions. It exists in three forms: elemental mercury and organic and inorganic mercury. Mining operations, chloralkali plants, and paper industries are significant producers of mercury (Goyer 1996). Atmospheric mercury is dispersed across the globe by winds and returns to the earth in rainfall, accumulating in aquatic food chains and fish in lakes (Clarkson 1990). Mercury compounds were added to paint as a fungicide until 1990. These compounds are now banned; however, old paint supplies and surfaces painted with these old supplies still exist. Mercury continues to be used in thermometers, thermostats, and dental amalgam. (Many researchers suspect dental amalgam as being a possible source of mercury toxicity [Omura et al. 1996; O'Brien 2001].) Medicines, such as mercurochrome and merthiolate, are still available. Algaecides and childhood vaccines are also potential sources. Inhalation is the most frequent cause of exposure to mercury. The organic form is readily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract (90-100%); lesser but still significant amounts of inorganic mercury are absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract (7-15%). Target organs are the brain and kidneys (Roberts 1999; ATSDR ToxFAQs for Mercury).


Cadmium is a byproduct of the mining and smelting of lead and zinc and is number 7 on ATSDR's "Top 20 list." It is used in nickel-cadmium batteries, PVC plastics, and paint pigments. It can be found in soils because insecticides, fungicides, sludge, and commercial fertilizers that use cadmium are used in agriculture. Cadmium may be found in reservoirs containing shellfish. Cigarettes also contain cadmium. Lesser-known sources of exposure are dental alloys, electroplating, motor oil, and exhaust. Inhalation accounts for 15-50% of absorption through the respiratory system; 2-7% of ingested cadmium is absorbed in the gastrointestinal system. Target organs are the liver, placenta, kidneys, lungs, brain, and bones (Roberts 1999; ATSDR ToxFAQs for Cadmium).


For more information on Heavy Metal Toxicity and other toxic substances, visit the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).




Life Extensions on Heavy Metal Toxicity


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