The dangerous effects of industrial chemicals on the environment and our health are becoming more serious. Some of these chemical toxins are hiding in places you may not be aware of. Heavy Metals are the fourth of five major groups of environmental toxins that are having a disastrous effect on our health and our global environment. Read on to learn about how we are exposed, how they affect our health, and steps to reduce exposure to this group of toxins.
What are Heavy Metals?
Heavy Metals are natural elements that are found the soil and water. The air, soil, and water are contaminated with various manmade forms of metals, which are highly toxic and persist for a long time in the environment. The heavy metals of most concern are lead, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, mercury, and aluminum.
How am I exposed to Heavy Metals?
Lead – Worldwide, there are six sources that account for most cases of lead exposure: gasoline additives, food-can soldering, lead-based paints, ceramic glazes, drinking water pipe systems, and folk remedies. The air contains lead from burning coal, oil, leaded gas, or waste. Children absorb a higher amount of lead in the gut than adults. The half-life of lead (amount of time it takes to get rid of half of the lead from a single exposure) in the bones is 25-30 years.
Cadmium – found in tobacco (smokers have twice the exposure of non-smokers), food from contaminated soil, fish, dust from auto tire erosion, plastics, fertilizers, car fumes, rechargeable batteries, coffee, and drinking water. It accumulates mainly in the kidneys and liver. The half-life of cadmium in the body is 10-30 years. Because of the very slow, inefficient detox process of this metal, it simply accumulates in the body over time.
Arsenic – found in some foods and drinking water, air pollution, breathing sawdust or burning smoke from arsenic-containing treated wood, living in areas with unusually high natural levels of arsenic in rock. It accumulates mainly in hair and toenails. The half-life of ingested arsenic can range from a few hours to several days.
Chromium – found mostly in soil and water near business that use chromium or make chrome plating, contaminated foods and drinking water, and living near hazardous waste sites. The half-life of chromium can be anywhere from a few hours to years, depending of the form of the metal and exposure amount.
Mercury – Metallic or elemental mercury exposure can come from mining, industrial wastewater, broken glass thermometers, old dental fillings, and more. It is absorbed by breathing in the vapors from industrial burning, dental fillings or exposed liquid metal. Inhaled mercury has a half-life of about 2 months. It accumulates in the brain where the half-life is 20 years. Organic mercury (mainly methylmercury) is absorbed through the lungs, gut, and skin. It also crosses the placenta, and it’s found in breast milk. The detox process of methylmercury is slow (half-life of 2-3 months), and exposure could be frequent enough that we probably will have residual amounts in our bodies throughout our life.
Aluminum – found in soft drink cans, antacids, medications, paints, table salt, white flour, baking soda and powder, and antiperspirants. The half-life of aluminum in the body is unknown but possibly as short as a few days, but likely longer. Those with kidney disease may have trouble flushing out aluminum. An average adult in the United States eats about 7–9 mg of aluminum per day in their food. This high frequency of exposure makes it difficult for our body to get rid it.
How do they damage health?
When heavy metals enter the body, they disrupt normal cellular function, which leads to toxicity in many organs. They aren’t absorbed well, but the amount that is absorbed is excreted so slowly that continued exposure just causes the heavy metals to accumulate in the body over time. A number of heavy metals and elements are associated with numerous health problems, such as lung, bladder, and kidney cancer, cardiovascular disease, memory deterioration, behavioral disturbances, and diminished intellectual capacity. Heavy metals have been shown to cross the blood/brain barrier and accumulate in the brain instead of being flushed out of the body. Many of them remain in the body months, years, and even decades.
What can I do?
- If you have old mercury-containing amalgam fillings in your teeth, have them replaced with mercury-free material by a dentist who doesn’t use amalgam.
- Avoid cosmetics that contain kohl, like many eyeliners. Kohl is usually contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
- Invest in a quality water filter – either solid carbon or reverse osmosis. Both of these will remove most all of the heavy metals and other toxins from the water. Drinking water can be a major source of toxin intake, so make sure it’s filtered and not stored in plastic bottles, since plasticizers are also toxic.
- Use aluminum-free versions of baking powder, baking soda, and deodorant.
ATSDR (2014, May). Toxic Substances Portal. Toxicological Profiles. Retrieved from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/index.asp
Crinnion, W. (2010). Clean, Green & Lean: Drop the weight in 30 days. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Krohn, J. and F. Taylor (2000). Natural Detoxification. 2nd ed. Vancouver: Hartley and Marks Publishers Inc.