The Heavy Metals

There are 35 metals that concern us because of occupational or residential exposure; 23 of these are the heavy elements or “heavy metals”: antimony, arsenic, bismuth, cadmium, cerium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, platinum, silver, tellurium, thallium, tin, uranium, vanadium, and zinc.

Small amounts of these elements are common in our environment and diet. Some of these metals, like vanadium and zinc are actually necessary for good health.

Heavy metal toxicity can result in damaged or reduced mental and central nervous function, lower energy levels, and damage to blood composition, lungs, kidneys, liver, and other vital organs.

Long-term exposure may result in slowly progressing physical, muscular, and neurological degenerative processes that mimic Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, and multiple sclerosis. Allergies, including auto-allergic diseases are not uncommon, and repeated long-term contact with some metals (or their compounds) may cause cancer.

For some heavy metals, toxic levels can be just above the background concentrations naturally found in nature. Therefore, it is important to learn about heavy metals and take protective measures against excessive exposure.

In most parts of the United States, heavy metal toxicity is a rarely diagnosed medical condition – maybe due to the lack of doctor’s training. If unrecognized or inappropriately treated, toxicity can result in significant illness and reduced quality of life. For persons who suspect that they or someone in their household might have heavy metal toxicity, testing is suggested.

The association of symptoms indicative of acute toxicity is not difficult to recognise if they are severe, rapid in onset, and associated with a known exposure or ingestion.

Symptoms of acute toxicity include:

  • cramping, nausea, and vomiting;
  • pain;
  • sweating;
  • headache;
  • difficulty breathing;
  • impaired cognitive, motor, and language skills;
  • mania; and
  • convulsions.

Symptoms of chronic exposure

  • impaired cognitive, motor, and language skills;
  • learning difficulties;
  • nervousness and emotional instability; and
  • insomnia, nausea, lethargy, and feeling ill
are often difficult to recognize.

They are difficult to associate with their cause.

Symptoms resulting from chronic exposure are very similar to symptoms of other health conditions and often develop slowly over months or even years.

Sometimes symptoms of chronic exposure subside; thinking the symptoms are related to something else, people postpone seeking treatment.

Definition of a Heavy Metal

“Heavy metals” are chemical elements with a specific gravity at least 5 times that of water. The specific gravity of water is 1 at 4°C (39°F). Specific gravity is a measure of density of a given amount of a solid substance when it is compared to an equal amount of water. Some well-known toxic metals with a specific gravity 5 or more times that of water are arsenic (5.7), cadmium (8.65), iron (7.9), lead (11.34), and mercury (13.546) (Lide 1992).

Beneficial Heavy Metals

In small quantities, certain heavy metals are nutritionally essential for a healthy life. Some of these are trace elements (eg, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc). These elements, or some form of them, are commonly found naturally in foodstuffs, fruits and vegetables, and in commercially available multivitamin products (CIS 1999). Diagnostic medical applications include direct injection of gallium during radiological procedures, dosing with chromium in parenteral nutrition mixtures, and the use of lead as a radiation shield around x-ray equipment (Roberts 1999). Heavy metals are also common in industrial applications such as the manufacture of pesticides, batteries, alloys, electroplated metal parts, textile dyes, steel, and so forth (CIS 1999). Many of these products are in our homes and add to quality of life when properly used.

Toxic Heavy Metals

Heavy metals become toxic when they are not metabolized by the body and accumulate in the soft tissues. Heavy metals may enter the human body via food, water, air, or absorption through the skin in agriculture, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, industrial, or residential settings. Industrial exposure is common in adults. Ingestion is the most common route in children (Roberts 1999). Children may develop toxic levels from normal hand-to-mouth activity (ie, coming in contact with contaminated soil or eating objects that are not food such as dirt or paint chips) (Dupler 2001). Less common routes of exposure include a radiological procedure, inappropriate dosing or monitoring during intravenous (parenteral) nutrition, a broken thermometer (Smith 1997), or a suicide or homicide attempt (Lupton 1985).

As a rule, acute poisoning is more likely to result from inhalation or contact with dust, fumes or vapors, or materials in the workplace. However, lesser levels of contamination may occur in residential settings, particularly in older homes with lead paint or old plumbing (CIS 1999). The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in Atlanta, Georgia (a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) was established by congressional mandate to perform specific functions concerning adverse human health effects and diminished quality of life associated with exposure to hazardous substances. The ATSDR is responsible for assessment of waste sites and providing health information concerning hazardous substances, response to emergency release situations, and education and training concerning hazardous substances (ATSDR Mission Statement 2001). In cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the ATSDR has compiled a Priority List for 2001 called the “Top 20 Hazardous Substances.” The heavy metals arsenic (1), lead (2), mercury (3), and cadmium (7) appear on this list.

Heavy Metals Sources Effects
ALUMINUM ​Alum, aluminum foil, animal feed, antacids, aspirin, auto exhaust,
baking powder, beer, bleached flour, cans, ceramics, cheese, cigarette
filters, color additives, construction materials, cookware, cosmetics,
dental amalgams, deodorants, drinking water, drying agents, dust,
insulated wiring, medicinal compounds, milk products, nasal spray,
pesticides, pollution, salt, tap water, tobacco smoke, toothpaste,
treated water, vanilla powder
​ALS, Alzheimer’s, anemia, appetite loss, behavioral problems, cavities, colds, colitis, confusion, constipation, dementia, dry mouth, dry skin, energy loss, excessive perspiration, flatulence, headaches, heartburn, hyperactivity, inhibition of enzyme systems, kidney dysfunction, lowered immune function, learning disabilities, leg twitching, liver dysfunction, memory loss, neuromuscular disorders, numbness, osteoporosis, paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, peptic ulcer, psychosis, reduced intestinal activity, senility, skin problems, spleen pain, stomach pain, weak and aching muscles
ARSENIC ​Burning of arsenate treated building materials, coal combustion, insect
sprays, pesticides, soils (arsenic rich), seafood from coastal waters,
especially muscles, oysters and shrimp
​Abdominal pain, anorexia, brittle nails, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, chronic anemia, burning in mouth / esophagus / stomach / bowel, confusion, convulsions, dermatitis, drowsiness, enzyme inhibition, garlicky odor to breath / stool, hair loss, headaches, hyper-pigmentation of nails and skin, increased risk of liver / lung / skin cancers, low grade fever, mucous in nose and throat, muscle aches / spasms / weakness, nervousness, respiratory tract infection, swallowing difficulty, sweet metallic taste, throat constriction
CADMIUM ​Airborne industrial contaminants, batteries, candy, ceramics, cigarette
smoke, colas, congenital intoxication, copper refineries, copper alloys,
dental alloys, drinking water, electroplating, fertilizers, food from
contaminated soil, fungicides, incineration of tires / rubber / plastic,
instant coffee, iron roofs, kidney, liver, marijuana, processed meat,
evaporated milk, motor oil, oysters, paint, pesticides, galvanized pipes, processed foods, refined grains / flours cereals, rubber, rubber carpet backing, seafoods (cod, haddock, oyster, tuna), sewage, silver polish, smelters, soft water, solders (including in food cans), tobacco, vending machine soft drinks, tools, vapor lamps, water (city, softened, well), welding metal
Alcoholism, alopecia, anemia, arthritis (osteo and rheumatoid), bone disease, bone pain in middle of bones, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cavities, cerebral hemorrhage, cirrhosis, diabetes, digestive disturbances, emphysema, enlarged heart, flu-like symptoms, growth impairment, headaches, high cholesterol, hyperkinetic behavior, hypertension, hypoglycemia, impotence, inflammation, infertility, kidney disease, learning disorders, liver damage, lung disease, migraines, nerve cell damage, osteoporosis, prostate dysfunction, reproductive disorders, schizophrenia, stroke
COPPER ​Birth control pills, congenital intoxication, copper cookware, copper
IUDs, copper pipes, dental alloys, fungicides, ice makers, industrial
emissions, insecticides, swimming pools, water (city / well), welding, avocado, beer, bluefish, bone meal, chocolate, corn oil, crabs, gelatin, grains, lamb, liver, lobster, margarine, milk, mushrooms, nuts, organ, meats, oysters, perch, seeds, shellfish, soybeans, tofu, wheat germ, yeast
​Acne, adrenal insufficiency, allergies, alopecia, anemia, anorexia, anxiety, arthritis (osteo & rheumatoid), autism, cancer, chills, cystic fibrosis, depression, diabetes, digestive disorders, dry mouth, estrogen dominance, fatigue, fears, fractures, fungus, heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Hodgkin’s disease, hyperactivity, hypertension, hyperthyroid, hypoglycemia, infections, inflammation, insomnia, kidney disorders, libido decreased, lymphoma, mental illness, migraines, mood swings, multiple sclerosis, myocardial infarction, nausea, nervousness, osteoporosis, panic attacks, paranoia, phobias, PMS, schizophrenia, senility, sexual dysfunction, spacey feeling, stuttering, stroke, tooth decay, toxemia of pregnancy, urinary tract infections, yeast infections
IRON ​Drinking water, iron cookware, iron pipes, welding,. foods: blackstrap
molasses, bone meal, bran, chives, clams, heart, kidney, leafy vegetables, legumes, liver, meat, molasses, nuts, organ meats, oysters,
parsley, red wine, refined foods, shellfish, soybeans, wheat germ, whole
grains
​Amenorrhea, anger, rheumatoid arthritis, birth defects, bleeding gums, cancer, constipation, diabetes, dizziness, emotional problems, fatigue, headache, heart damage, heart failure, hepatitis, high blood pressure, hostility, hyperactivity, infections, insomnia, irritability, joint pain, liver disease, loss of weight, mental problems, metallic taste in mouth, myasthenia gravis, nausea, pancreas damage, Parkinson’s disease, premature aging, schizophrenia, scurvy, shortness of breath, stubborness
LEAD ​Ash, auto exhaust, battery manufacturing, bone meal, canned fruit and
juice, car batteries, cigarette smoke, coal combustion, colored inks,
congenital intoxication, cosmetics, eating utensils, electroplating,
household dust, glass production, hair dyes, industrial emissions, lead
pipes, lead-glazed earthenware pottery, liver, mascara, metal polish,
milk, newsprint, organ meats, paint, pencils, pesticides, produce near
roads, putty, rain water, pvc containers, refineries, smelters, snow,
tin cans with lead solder sealing (such as juices, vegetables), tobacco,
toothpaste, toys, water (city / well), wine
​Adrenal dysfunction, allergy, alopecia, anorexia, anxiety, birth defects, blushing, brain damage, cataracts, cerebral palsy, poor coordination / jerky movements, deafness, depression, dermatitis, discouragement, dizziness, drowsiness, eczema, emotional disturbances, excess saliva, fatigue, gum bleeding and soreness, headaches (band type), hearing loss, hyperactivity, hypothyroidism, forgetfulness, immune dysfunction, insomnia, irritability, joint pain, kidney damage, loss of self-control, memory loss, mental retardation, metallic taste, migraines, nervousness, nerve fiber degeneration, numbness, pain in limbs, rashes, retinitis, schizophrenia, shyness, speech disorders, suicidal tendencies, tingling, tremors (eyelids, lips, tongue, fingers, extremities), vision loss
MERCURY

Smoking Teeth = Poison Gas

​Adhesives, air conditioner filters, algaecides, antiseptics, battery
manufacturing, body powders, broken thermometers, burning newspapers and building materials, calomel lotions, cereals, congenital intoxication, cosmetics, dental amalgams, diuretics, fabric softeners, felt, floor waxes, fungicides, germicides, grains, industrial waste, insecticides, laxatives, lumber, manufacture of paper and chlorine, medications, mercurochrome, paints, paper products, pesticides, photoengraving, polluted water, Preparation H, psoriasis ointment, seafoods (especially tuna and swordfish), sewage disposal, skin lightening creams, soft contact lens solution, suppositories, tanning leather, tatooing, water (contaminated), wood preservatives
​Adrenal dysfunction, allergy, alopecia, anorexia, anxiety, birth defects, blushing, brain damage, cataracts, cerebral palsy, poor coordination / jerky movements, deafness, depression, dermatitis, discouragement, dizziness, drowsiness, eczema, emotional disturbances, excess saliva, fatigue, gum bleeding and soreness, headaches (band type), hearing loss, hyperactivity, hypothyroidism, forgetfulness, immune dysfunction, insomnia, irritability, joint pain, kidney damage, loss of self-control, memory loss, mental retardation, metallic taste, migraines, nervousness, nerve fiber degeneration, numbness, pain in limbs, rashes, retinitis, schizophrenia, shyness, speech disorders, suicidal tendencies, tingling, tremors (eyelids, lips, tongue, fingers, extremities), vision loss
NICKEL ​Butter, fertilizers, food processing, fuel oil combustion, hydrogenated
fats and oils, imitation whipped cream, industrial waste, kelp,
margarine, oysters, stainless steel cookware, tea, tobacco smoke
​Anorexia, kidney dysfunction, apathy, disruption of hormones, fever, hemorrhages, headache, heart attack, intestinal cancer, muscle tremors, nausea, oral cancer, skin problem

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