The industrial progress, with all its indisputable benefits, has brought about a lot of challenges to the environment and human health. Chemicals containing heavy metals are being used in oil and ore extraction, electronic goods, car fuel, cigarettes, medicines and even household products. This has created ample conditions for heavy metal toxicity in all areas of our life.
What is a heavy metal?
Some use the atomic weight to identify it, while others base the name of the element valency (ability to bind other chemical elements). The majority of researchers who write about heavy metal toxicity define any metal which is dangerous to human health in small amounts as heavy. Heavy metal toxicity can arise from acute or prolonged exposure to certain substances which contain heavy metals. I found a good reference table of symptoms which you may want to take a look at.
Many of the elements which can be considered heavy metals have no known benefits to humans. Such elements include lead, mercury, and cadmium. However, other metals are essential to the biochemical processes. For example, zinc takes part in various enzymatic reactions, vitamin B-12 includes cobalt as part of it, and haemoglobin contains iron.
Copper, manganese, selenium, chromium, and molybdenum are all trace elements, which play an important role in the human body. Other metals are used therapeutically in medicine. They include aluminium, bismuth, gold, gallium, lithium, and silver. Any of these elements may damage the body if taken in excessive amounts or if natural mechanisms of elimination are impaired.
How Common Is Heavy Metal Toxicity?
Heavy metal toxicity is more common than most people think but unfortunately is not easy to diagnose. In most cases, a number of factors need to be analysed in order to determine whether a person is suffering from it. Symptoms of heavy metal toxicity vary according to the metal, the total dose absorbed, and whether the exposure is acute or chronic. The age of the person can also influence toxicity.
For example, young children are more prone to the effects of lead exposure because they absorb several times the percent ingested compared with adults and because their brain is still growing and developing, so has more plasticity. Even brief exposures may influence developmental processes. The route of exposure is also important. Elemental mercury is relatively inert in the gastrointestinal tract and also poorly absorbed through intact skin. However, if inhaled or injected, elemental mercury may have disastrous effects.
Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity
Various toxins affect the body in different ways. They range from a mild discomfort to more serious symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of consciousness, mental retardation, chronic diseases, cancer, and even death. Many of the symptoms have been covered when describing the toxins. For information on the symptoms of heavy metal toxicity, see the table above. Here is a list of symptoms resulting from heavy metal toxicity:
- Selenium – exposure to high doses can cause selenosis which can cause hair loss, nail brittleness, and neurological abnormalities (numbness in the extremities). “Symptoms of selenosis include a garlic odour on the breath, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, sloughing of nails, fatigue, irritability, and neurological damage. Extreme cases of selenosis can result in cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary oedema, and death.” Source
- Beryllium – exposure to high doses can cause chronic Beryllium disease, which may result in breathing difficulties, coughing, chest pain.
- Mercury – exposure to it can cause damage to the central nervous system and kidneys. “Mercury poisoning can result in several diseases, including acrodynia (pink disease), Hunter-Russell syndrome, and Minamata disease. Symptoms typically include sensory impairment (vision, hearing, speech), disturbed sensation and a lack of coordination. The type and degree of symptoms exhibited depend upon the individual toxin, the dose, and the method and duration of exposure.” Source
- Chromium (IV) – exposure can cause strong allergic reaction linked to Asthmatic Bronchitis and DNA damage. “After it reaches the bloodstream, it damages the kidneys, the liver and blood cells through oxidation reactions. Hemolysis, renal and liver failure are the results of these damages.” Source
- Arsenic – long-term exposure can cause lung cancer, skin disease, nerve damage. “Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, confusion, severe diarrhoea, and drowsiness. As the poisoning develops, convulsions and changes in fingernail pigmentation called leukonychia striata may occur. When the poisoning becomes acute, symptoms may include diarrhoea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and more convulsions. The organs of the body that are usually affected by arsenic poisoning are the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver.” Source
- Lead – exposure to it can cause nervous system, kidney damage, blood disorders, cancer, foetal abnormalities. Children are especially vulnerable. “Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behaviour disorders. Symptoms include abdominal pain, confusion, headache, anaemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death.” Source Symptoms also include nausea, vomiting, headaches, seizures, encephalopathy, anaemia, abdominal pain, nephropathy, foot-drop, wrist-drop.
- Barium – exposure may lead to brain swelling, high blood pressure, damage to heart, liver and spleen.
- Bismuth – renal failure, acute tubular necrosis.
- Cadmium – long-term exposure can cause kidney and liver damage, lung cancer, osteomalacia, or even death. Cadmium is contained in cigarette smoke and car fumes. It is also a well-known carcinogen.
- Cobalt – beer drinker’s (dilated) cardiomyopathy, pneumoconiosis, goitre.
- Copper – irritation of GI tract, irritation, vineyard sprayer’s lung (when inhaled), hepatic degeneration.
- Iron – vomiting, GI haemorrhage, cardiac depression, metabolic acidosis, hepatic cirrhosis.
- Manganese – Parkinson-like syndrome, respiratory problems, neuro-psychiatric disorders.
- Nickel – dermatitis, myocarditis, encelopathy, occupational pulmonary fibrosis (inhaled), low sperm count, tumours in the nasal area and pharynx.
- Selenium – caustic burns, pneumonitis, hypotension, brittle nails and hair, red skin, hemiplegia.
- Silver (high doses) – haemorrhage, bone marrow suppression, pulmonary oedema, hepatorenal necrosis, blue-grey discolouration of the skin & nails.
- Thallium – early symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, painful neuropathy, coma, autonomic instability. Late symptoms: residual neurologic symptoms, alopecia (hair loss).
- Zinc – vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, copper deficiency, anemia, neurologic degeneration, osteoporosis.
What can you do to protect yourself from heavy metal toxicity?
- Make sure that you know where your food is coming from. Is there a high level of use of pesticides in the area – if it is produced locally?
- How clean is your water supply? Can you do anything to find it out?
- How clean is the air your and your family breathe?
- Are there large industrial enterprises in the area? Is the environment well protected from the side products of these enterprises?
- Question everything that concerns you and your family health. Watch your children for signs of unexplained behaviour, aggression, restlessness, as well as anything that worries you.
- You can actually request a heavy metal analysis from your doctor. It may be difficult to get a referral, but make sure that you insist on it, and if you can afford it, go private.
- Children are especially vulnerable to heavy metal toxicity. Their brain and the central nervous system gets affected in a much worse way than those of adults. Lead, mercury, cadmium, caesium, aluminium, arsenic – make sure to research that there is no history of unexplained illnesses in the area.
- Strip away any old paint. Painted old furniture often contains lead in the paint, and young children can get it easily into their bodies since they chew and lick everything!
- See your GP if you suspect heavy metal toxicity. Get the second or third opinion if you need to.
- Take powdered zeolite (1 teaspoon mixed with water) daily, or even twice a day, before meals. If you are on medication, speak with your GP, since highly sorbent substances like zeolite can interfere with medicines.
- Start spraying yourself with magnesium oil daily. Magnesium helps the body to get rid of toxins, including heavy metals.
- Baths with magnesium flakes or Epsom salt help to top up magnesium levels too.
- Coriander, chlorella and spirulina are well known for their detoxifying properties.
- Take a good probiotic supplement to help boost your immunity.
- Nascent iodine or kelp supplement can help rid the body of radioactive caesium if one lives close to a place where it is likely to be abundant.<