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Just how heavy are heavy metals?

Just how heavy are heavy metals?

What do the Wizard of Oz, “mad” hatters, and women from the Victorian age have in common? Or rather, what do they all have in common with us? And the answer is – toxic chemicals. Specifically lead, mercury, and arsenic. These toxic heavy metals were no good to the human body then, and they aren’t good now. Yet, they’ve been used for years in medicine, manufacturing, gasoline, cosmetics, and the list goes on.

I bring up the famous 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, because of the complications the Tin Man suffered due to chemicals in the very thing that made him shine – his makeup. Unfortunately, Buddy Ebsen, the actor who played the beloved Tin Man, suffered a severe reaction after inhaling aluminum powder from his silver face makeup.  This reaction triggered a congenital bronchial condition after the dust settled in the Tin Man’s lungs. To add insult to injury, he also developed an eye infection from the chemicals in the cosmetics, forcing an eye-sight saving surgical procedure just days into filming.

Long before The Wizard of Oz was filmed, English ladies of society wanted to let the world know their wealthy status in England. In an effort to minimize how much makeup was applied to their faces (as makeup signified lesser status), they boasted pale faces with lead-filled creams and powders. Not only were the high society ladies wearing lead on their bodies, the beauty products of their time also contained mercury and arsenic. Essentially, the women in the Victorian age who showed off the pale-face look, became quite ill due to the chemicals absorbed into their bodies.

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It’s true.  Heavy metals have been widely used for years all over the world. The benefits of certain chemicals were understood, but the negative health effects were often overlooked. Most likely this is because side effects such as neurological disorders, tremors, anxiety, and depression hundreds of years ago were considered “crazy” or “mad’ behaviors.

Hence…the Mad Hatter’s disease. The hat makers were unsuspecting and had no way of knowing how dangerous their trade would be for them. Mercury was used in manufacturing hats in the 1800s. “Hatters” did not wear PPE and were exposed daily to mercury, which caused extreme emotional, mental, and physical reactions. By the mid-1800s, people were referred to as being “mad as a hatter.” And of course, we’re all familiar with the famous mad hatter from the movie, Alice in Wonderland. His character actually portrayed a person with dementia, representing the many British people who suffered from dementia due to the effects of hat making.

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As interesting as this trivia is, heavy metals should be taken seriously. Keep in mind that heavy metals were not heavily regulated until a few decades ago. I’m sure you know someone who still has a mercury containing thermometer at home. If the thermometer breaks, there is an acute exposure to mercury. It may not seem like much, however, each thermometer contains .5 – 1.5 grams of mercury. To put it in perspective, this is enough to contaminate a 20 acre lake (exposing wildlife and fish). To properly dispose of a mercury containing thermometer, contact a local recycling center or environmental company for advice.

What are heavy metals?

Heavy metals are defined by having relatively high densities, atomic weights, and atomic numbers.

Scientists categorize heavy metals as the following:

  • Arsenic
  • Cadmium
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Zinc
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Exposure to heavy metals seems unavoidable given that they are all over our environment. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean that poisoning will occur. Certain people are more vulnerable due to environmental conditions and lifestyle choices. Environmental consultants can attest to other negative risk factors like where you purchase a home.

Some questions asked by environmental professionals include: 

  • Where is your home located?
  • Did you purchase residential property near railroad tracks, a power plant, or a farm? 

In one instance, not too far from the community I live in, a family experienced extreme heavy metal poisoning due to high levels of arsenic found on their beautiful farm land. In this case, the family wasn’t farming the land, rather they purchased a farm home with a barn for the beauty of the property itself. It wasn’t until the children fell ill and their mother’s tongue turned blue, that they had sampling done.

You may be wondering how that happened or what was the source of the poisoning?  Prior to their ownership, the barn was used as a place to treat and preserve wood with arsenic. Environmental testing revealed high levels of arsenic tracked inside the home from the soil outside. It is wise to have environmental soil sampling done if you intend on living on this type of property.

What about young children? How are they at risk for heavy metal exposure?

We all know young children are curious and like to put objects in their mouths. Children may experience acute poisoning by accidentally swallowing lead used in paint chips.  Why do children eat paint chips? The reason is that lead is actually sweet tasting. So sweet, in fact, that Romans used to add it to bitter wine to enhance flavor. Yes, this did make Roman people very ill with gastrointestinal problems being a chief complaint.

Children are more susceptible to the uptake of lead in their bodies due to high gastrointestinal uptake. Yet adults aren’t off the hook. Adults who smoke, work in factories, or eat large amounts of marine food may also accumulate toxic levels of heavy metals, many of which are harmful to our health.

The short version is that body tissues suffer due to oxidative stress caused by free radical formation. Tissues break down and become inflamed, leading to a weakened immune system. For these reasons, it’s important to understand what heavy metal poisoning is and what we can do to minimize exposure to keep our bodies healthy.

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What is heavy metal poisoning?

Heavy metal poisoning is an accumulation of metals absorbed into the bloodstream. The effects of heavy metals on human health have long been studied with recent data further supporting the negative impact heavy metal poisoning has on human health.

Heavy metal toxicity can lower energy levels and damage the functioning of the brain, lungs, kidney, liver, blood composition, and other important organs. Long-term exposure can lead to gradually progressing physical, muscular, and neurological degenerative processes that imitate diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and muscular dystrophy.

The chart below highlights some of the most toxic heavy metals that people are exposed to and the impact on their bodies. 

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Who is most at risk for heavy metal poisoning?

  • Children who are undernourished
  • Factory workers who are exposed to chemicals
  • A person who has inhaled lead dust
  • A person who eats fish in places with high levels of mercury
  • Smokers
  • General population through air, soil, food, water

What can you do if you’ve been exposed to heavy metals?

If you suspect acute heavy metal poisoning or experienced prolonged exposure, contact your health care provider to determine the next course of action. It may be recommended that you get a blood test to determine exact metal levels in your blood.

Other tests are available as well, such as a urine test or an x-ray. Heavy metal testing is not routine for adults so you will have to discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Most likely you will be asked a series of questions related to diet, occupation, potential exposures, and overall health related concerns.

Depending on blood test results, your doctor may use specific medication to bind to the metals and transport them out of your body. This is known as chelation therapy.

Chelation is a type of bonding of ions and molecules used to remove toxic metals from the body. This is only recommended under strict supervision by a doctor as the side effects need to be closely monitored. In fact, the process of chelation also strips the body of good nutrients, while releasing the toxins into the body. This is not a process you would take into your own hands.

What are some things you can do to reduce the negative impact of heavy metals?

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  • Keep your home lead free
  • Quit smoking
  • Know where your kids play
  • Listen to your body
  • Get plenty of calcium, vitamin c, and iron in your diet
  • Read ingredients in cosmetics
  • Avoid consuming large quantities of mercury containing fish (swordfish, tuna, shark)
  • Test your drinking water for lead
  • Wear a mask if you work around heavy metals
  • Wash hands often and wear gloves when gardening in areas that could be contaminated with heavy metals

I’m sure the Tin Man would do things differently had he known how toxic his make up was. Perhaps the ladies of society in Victoria, England would not have willingly poisoned themselves. I bet if asked, the hat manufacturers in England would have requested personal protective equipment while using harsh chemicals to smooth out animal fur or fabric for hats. As for us, there’s no question we are better off than they were, but what we do with this information matters.  Know your surroundings. Know you have options. Stay healthy.

Primary source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4427717/ Additional resource: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14757716/

By Camille Panaro, M.S. ES, M.S. Ed