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It’s something we don’t think about, yet are exposed to every day through our air, our water and our food:  heavy metals.

What are heavy metals?  And why should we worry about them?  Heavy metals are from the earth’s crust, and cannot be degraded or destroyed.  They are persistent in our environment.

There are essential metals that we need to survive, but in small “trace” amounts:  copper, zinc, cobalt, chromium, manganese, iron, and selenium.  While essential in trace amounts these can become dangerous if excessive amounts are taken in. 

What gets our attention are the more toxic elements:  lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, which cause problems even in small amounts.  These are what people think of when we say “heavy metals”.

What happens if we take in heavy metals?

Heavy metals can “bioaccumulate” which means they can build up in our soft tissues and bone and may cause multiple organs to become damaged.  Symptoms may, therefore, be expressed in a variety of ways.  These metals can also mimic or displace vital nutrients (like calcium and zinc) and disrupt metabolic reactions that keep us healthy.  A new area of study is the co-interaction of heavy metals in the body, and the surprising synergistic effects they seem to have.

How we take in heavy metals

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We are exposed through groundwater contamination and that may lead to contaminated foods, through polluted air emissions, and through products that we put on our skin.  Heavy metals are even released by volcanic eruptions!

Let’s look at several of these metals and how we may be exposed.  Note how surprisingly often you see “batteries, plastics, paint, pigments and ceramics”.

Antimony:

Commonly used as a flame retardant, antimony can be found in clothing, toys and furniture.  It’s also used to harden lead, and can be found in lead-based products.  It’s common in batteries, plastics, paint, pigments, and ceramics but also enamel and pewter.

Arsenic:

Used primarily in pesticide manufacturing and applications, it affects agricultural workers (especially vineyards), and is found in ceramics, glass making, smelting and refining of metallic ore, and semi-conductor manufacturing. Certain regions of the world are known to have high levels of arsenic in the groundwater, and individuals who have lived in Bangladesh, India, China, Uruguay, Mexico and Taiwan may have higher levels of arsenic exposure.

Arsenic can inactivate over 200 enzymes, and can replace phosphate in metabolic reactions.

Berryllium:

Electronic component manufacturing and electronic recycling are the primary locations for berryllium exposure.

Cadmium:

This is one heavy metal that deserves a closer look.  Cadmium is similar to zinc and can replace zinc in enzymes and other functions.  Highest levels are seen in active smokers, with lesser levels in former smokers.  E-cigarettes are proving to be a source of exposure due to the use in flavorings.  Not convinced to stop smoking?  Cadmium accumulation is strongly associated with emphysema.  Cadmium is also found in batteries (NiCad – rechargeable), children’s jewelry, pesticides (manufacturing and application), plastic, and pigments.

Chronic exposure to cadmium is known to decrease norepinephrine, seratonin and acetylcholine, which are neurotransmitters that regulate mood and other functions..

Chromium:

Used in the manufacturing of steel and stainless steel, but also chrome, linoleum, copier toner, tanning, and pigments.  Over 300,000 workers are exposed each year, primarily through breathing but also contact with skin resulting in a type of dermatitis. Chromium seems to accumulate in aquatic life, so be cautious about the amount of fish you consume.

Cobalt:

Cobalt is used in the manufacturing of jet engines, and also machine tools, tires, magnets, batteries, alloys, crystal, ceramics and paint.

Lead:

If you watched the news in the past few years, you probably heard about the water supply in Flint, Michigan.  The water supply source had been switched, and the residents (including the children) were unwittingly exposed to high quantities of lead.  When I was a child, lead paint was common and leaded gasoline was the norm.  Many steps have been undertaken to remove lead but it remains a threat. In fact, lead poisoning remains one of the most common pediatric health concerns. Houses built before 1978 may still have lead in the paint, which turns to lead dust and the soil around the house may also have lead from previous activities. And 25% (or over 16 million households) fall in that category.  And over 2000 water systems across the US have higher levels than permitted, not counting what your pipes are made of.

Lead can mimic and replace calcium in the body’s reactions.

Most lead today is used in the manufacture of batteries (83%), but you will also find lead in children’s or costume jewelry, leaded crystal, lead pipes, lipstick and other beauty supplies, toys, glass, pigments and ceramics – even candy. Lead exposure occurs through pesticide manufacture and application, car exhaust, mining, manufacture of ammunition, solder and pipes, and leaded x-ray shields.

Mercury:

Oh, what we did not know back then.  Thermometers would break and we would play with the enticing silvery liquid that seemed to pool into little balls.  We let dentists fill our cavities with amalgam that contained almost half mercury.  Our grandmothers had mercury lamps and other antiques. . 

Besides checking the surfaces on antiques, mercury is found in electrical switches, thermostats, batteries, paint, skin cream, jewelry, televisions, and in the manufacture of chlorine and coal burning for energy.  Mercury may be a perservative for pharmaceutical products.

There are different forms of mercury.  Elemental mercury is “mercury vapor”.  Organic mercury is methylmercury, and is of concern because of the accumulation in certain deep water fish such as tuna.  Inorganic or monomercury or dimethylmercury is of concern because of the neurotoxic effects.  Of note, some ayurvedic preparations use inorganic mercury.  The evidence is not clear on toxicity if used correctly but please seek guidance from an experienced ayurvedic provider.

Nickel:

We’ve all handled a nickel, right?  Yes,  nickel is used in the manufacture of coins but also in nickel plating, jewelry, batteries (NiCad), ceramics, and is found in diesel exhaust. 

What can I do to reduce my exposure?

For items that you use every day, like lipstick, it pays to do your homework.  The average women wears lipstick 365 days a year and may reapply once or twice each day.  Lead-free lipstick may be a worthwhile investment.  Same with mercury-free face cream, or aluminum-free deodorant (the underarm has very good absorption) or over-the-counter antacids.  Or toothpaste that is nickel and lead-free. Cleaning supplies that have cleaner ingredients.  Hand soap that is cleaner. (The links are to products I use and sell).  Foods that are grown organically (earlier in 2019, there was a report of 45 fruit juices that contain lead, arsenic or cadmium).  

Look at the products you use every day:  furniture fabrics and upholstery, car seating, clothing, toys, ceramic plates.  

Note how close you are to recycling centers and manufacturing.  At your job, if you work around heavy metals, reduce your exposure by wearing gloves and a mask, or the appropriate protective equipment.  

There are websites and resources to help you reduce the exposure to yourself and your loved ones.  Here is a nice list to get started:

  • Campaign for Safe Cosmetics:  http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/lead-and-other-heavy-metals/
  • Environmental Working Group (EWG) SkinDeep(R):  https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
  • Environmental Protection Agency, Clean-up in My Community:  https://www.epa.gov/cleanups/cleanups-my-community

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Future Posts

Related posts in the future will focus on resources to help reduce exposure to environmental toxins.