✓ 10 chemicals are considered to be a major public health concern by the World Health Organization
✓ It takes 120 days for lead to leave your body after your last exposure
✓ 316,000+ babies are born each year who have toxic levels of mercury1)
The body is a well-oiled machine with multiple finely-tuned systems that remove daily waste, including environmental toxins. In a healthy person, the liver, digestive system, lymphatic system, kidneys, skin, and lungs all work together to constantly manage the influx of toxins, metals, pollutants, alcohol/caffeine, and/or medications we come in contact with daily. Although we have constant exposure to toxins, heavy metal toxicity has recently become a bigger concern because of the use of these metals in so many new and booming industries, like technology, agriculture, manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals. Heavy metals are everywhere – in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the lotions, creams, and makeup we touch.
What metals may be in your system?
Heavy metals – lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic – can accumulate in your body and are considered metals of public health significance.2)
Do you live in or near a big city? If so, then you can be breathing in air pollution from cars, buses, cigarette smoke, and smog in the forms of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other particulates. Do you live in an older home that has lead pipes or lead-based paint (lead paint was banned in 1978).
Do you know what your city’s water quality is?
Reports show there are significant differences in municipal water supply among cities. Excessive levels of lead have currently been found in as many as 2,000 municipal water systems in all 50 states. In particular, there can be serious issues with the water quality in lower income and minority communities, including tribal lands, Alaskan native villages, towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, and small communities in agricultural areas.3)
What about the pipes that bring water into your home? Some older water pipes are made from lead or made from copper that is welded together with lead-based solder. Water, especially hot water, can leach the lead into the water supply. Approximately 15-20 percent of lead exposure is attributable to contaminated water supplied by lead pipes. Lead inflicts damage on the kidneys, cardiovascular system, and nervous system.
Dietary sources of heavy metals
Food can contain heavy metals, too. For example, although rice contains a number of beneficial minerals like magnesium, selenium, and manganese, it also contains trace amounts of arsenic – naturally found in the soil – but also contained in fertilizers and pesticides used in common farming techniques. Arsenic can be found in foods like fruits, vegetables, and juices. It’s a carcinogen that can induce skin, lung, liver, prostate, and bladder cancer.4)
Some commercial soups and animal bone broths can have many nutritious benefits, but also might contain trace amounts of cadmium and lead, depending on their source and cooking technique.5)
So while meager consumption of these foods is probably safe, frequent or large volumes might warrant health concerns.
Fish is probably the most commonly recognized dietary source of heavy metals. Coal burning and iron mining put heavy metals in the air that are deposited in the water and become absorbed into fish flesh. Bigger fish that have been in the water longest can have the most mercury; shark and swordfish typically have higher levels, while mackerel, tuna, and North American lobster have somewhat lower levels. Mercury is toxic to the central nervous system that controls your brain and spinal cord, as well as to the peripheral nervous system, which is responsible for your nerves and everything outside of your brain.
Other sources of heavy metals in your environment
Cigarettes, E-cigarettes, and vaporizers expose you to cadmium. Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that has been linked to cancers of the lung, pancreas, breast, prostate, endometrium, and bladder.6)
Lotions, creams, makeup, and household cleansers can contain heavy metals that are absorbed by the skin. And not all cosmetics need to penetrate the skin barrier. Lipsticks have direct entry to the mouth and powders can be inhaled. Certain personal care products, like deodorants, lotions, and nail polish, when used on a daily basis, increase your exposure. While the FDA has regulations on what needs to be listed as ingredients, it is hard to know what is actually in these products because heavy metals are contaminants, not ingredients. Some countries have less stringent regulations than the United States, and you can’t always be sure of what country certain materials originate from.
Furthermore, medical conditions that affect one of your organs can cause one or more body systems to be overtaxed and malfunction. When this occurs, your body might not be able to efficiently eliminate the toxins in your system, leading to signs or symptoms of toxicity. So while a healthy body typically has the capability to flush traces of toxic elements from your system, constant exposure, high levels, and even low exposure of dangerous metals can become a more serious problem.
How will you know if you’ve been exposed?
With some exposure, you can start to notice signs and symptoms that your body is not operating at full capacity. Nausea, diarrhea, headaches, high or low blood pressure, tingling in the extremities, or muscle spasms can be early signs. In the case of excessive exposure levels, heavy metals can damage the bodily systems and organs that are in place to remove them from your system – the kidneys, lungs, liver, GI tract, and circulatory systems. Heavy metals also compete with essential minerals for absorption and transport within your body, resulting in less availability of those beneficial minerals needed for optimal functioning of specific organs and enzymatic processes.
Toxicity depends on various factors including the particular metal, the amount you have been exposed to, the route of exposure, and the chemical species, as well as your age, gender, genetics, and nutritional and health status.
What to do
Identify environmental exposures
Check your home, work, school, and car for the most obvious sources of heavy metals – including water, air, food, and things you sit on or touch.
Start with easy fixes, like filtering the water that comes into your house or spending time outside first thing in the morning when pollution is the lowest. If in doubt, you can get your water supply tested. Limit big fish intake and know where and what soil your food is coming from. More extreme measures would include replacing lead pipes and removing lead-based paint if you live in a house that was built prior to 1978.
Cleanse your system
Fiber and pectin can trap heavy metals, allowing the metal ions to be gently eliminated from your body.* Add antioxidants to your diet to help neutralize free radicals and to support your body from the damaging effects of heavy metals.* Drink plenty of filtered water to help cells function optimally and to keep your kidneys eliminating waste and byproducts.
Maintain adequate levels of nutrients
Heavy metals in your system compete for absorption with beneficial trace minerals important for everyday function. Support your body’s detoxification systems by providing essential nutrients, like selenium, alpha-lipoic acid, magnesium, zinc, and molybdenum through diet and supplementation.
Support your liver
Provide nutrients or botanicals that help nourish your liver – an important organ for detoxification.*
- Trasande L, Landrigan PJ, Schechter C. Public health and economic consequences of methyl mercury toxicity to the developing brain. Environ Health Perspect 2005;113(5):590-596.
- Tchounwou P, Yedjou C, Patlolla A, Sutton D. Heavy metal toxicity and the environment. Exp Supp 2012;101:133-164.
- VanDerslice J. Drinking water infrastructure and environmental disparities: evidence and methodological considerations. Am J Public Health 2011;101 Suppl 1:S109-S114.
- Hong Y, Song K, Chung J. Health effects of chronic arsenic exposure. J Prev Med Public Health 2014;47(5):245-252.
- Hsu D, Lee C, Tsai W, Chien Y. Essential and toxic metals in animal bone broths. Food Nutr Res 2017;61(1):134-137.
- Hartwig A. Cadmium and cancer. Met Ions Life Sci 2013;11:491-507.