‘In THAT direction,’ the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter – and in THAT direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.’ Thus, Lewis Carroll immortalized the term “Mad Hatter” in his 19th century book “Alice in Wonderland”. This common English saying referred to the toxic effects of mercury seen in felt hat makers of the time. The accumulation of mercury caused dementia and the phrase “mad as a hatter” became a colloquial term to refer to someone acting insane.
Back to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, heavy metal toxicity has been well documented. Metals that are at least 5 times denser than water are referred to as “heavy metals”. Certain heavy metals, in the right amounts, are essential for health, such as iron, copper, manganese and zinc. However, heavy metals become toxic when they accumulate in the body tissues. There are 23 heavy metals that are concerning for their toxicity and common exposure.
The toxic heavy metals
Mining produces silver, gold, platinum, nickel, copper and tin. Around here we are familiar with heavy metals such as uranium, vanadium and tellurium. Arsenic was used in wood preservatives and insecticides, which is now banned, but is still used commonly in the poultry industry to stimulate growing birds. Cadmium is found in gasoline fumes and the most common exposure is from cigarette smoke.
Lead and mercury are two of the most common heavy metals of concern. Lead is a very soft metal and was used in pipes, drains and solder for years. It was also in paint up until about 1940. Today lead is found mostly in batteries, plumbing, ammunition, fuel additives, PVC plastics, pencils and pesticides.
Mercury is the most widely distributed heavy metal on earth, released naturally from the earth’s degassing and volcanoes. It is commonly found in batteries, thermometers, thermostats and dental amalgams. Mining and paper industries produce significant amounts of mercury that is emitted into the air, returning in the rain and into the earth’s water supply. In 2004 the EPA warned that nearly all fish contain traces of mercury, especially harmful to unborn or small children. That same year another report warned that 1/3 of the lakes and 1/4 of the river ways in the US were contaminated with toxic levels of mercury.
Health effects of toxic heavy metals
Acute exposures to heavy metals leading to a high blood level will cause acute heavy metal toxicity and the medical field broadly agrees this is a bad deal. The symptoms of acute toxicity depend on the metal and the route of exposure – they are wide ranging and are easy to misdiagnose. Common symptoms impact the nervous system causing memory loss, depression or anxiety, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, anorexia, vision problems and peripheral nerve disorders.
The issue of chronic heavy metal exposure and the slow accumulation in body tissues is more controversial. Medicine is just beginning to recognize the serious negative effects that heavy metals cause in the body over time. Industrial polluters and their government safety pawns are none too happy about modern science uncovering well-researched connections between chronic heavy metal accumulation and disease. Currently “acceptable” levels of heavy metal exposure are too high and we are suffering as a result. In my library of research studies there are several hundred that confirm this fact, but consider just a few related to lead.
A 2006 study by Menke, from the American Heart Association’s journal, “Circulation”, concluded that the association between blood lead levels and increased all-cause and cardiovascular mortality was observed at substantially lower blood lead levels than previously reported. The startling message of this study was the evidence that lead levels well below the accepted “safe” range were associated with an 89% increased risk of heart attack and a 151% increased risk of stroke!
The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey determined blood levels in 13,946 participants. It was found that 38% of US adults had a blood lead level above the threshold determined by Menke to “represent a public health hazard”.
Another study from “Circulation” 2004, by Navas-Acien, found that “peripheral artery disease was associated with blood lead levels well below current safety standards”. A 2003 study by Lin, from the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, found that “low-level environmental lead exposure” accelerated kidney failure in patients with impaired kidney function.
Chelating heavy metals out of the body
We are exposed to heavy metals throughout our lifetime and avoiding heavy metal exposure is almost impossible, thus a long-term treatment plan is to avoid as much heavy metal as possible while removing the metals from our body. This is done by a treatment called “chelation” which comes from the Greek word meaning “claw”. A chelating agent is one that is taken into the body, where is binds to heavy metals, pulling them out of the tissue whence they can be excreted in the urine and stool.
The best chelating agent for lead and most metals is a chemical called EDTA. For mercury, DMPS works best. These are usually given by IV injection in a series of 5 to 30 treatments, until the heavy metals are removed. An oral form of EDTA is given to absorb metals that will accumulate in the intestine during IV treatment. We also use natural chelating agents taken orally such citrus pectin, alginate, garlic, malic acid and methionine.
Blood or urine levels of heavy metals will only detect recent exposure. Hair samples are a good indication of longer exposures but will only reflect recent months. The best way to test for metal accumulation is to undergo a “provocation” IV chelation treatment, after which the urine is collected for 6 to 24 hours. The heavy metals measured in the urine show how much was chelated and eliminated, giving an indirect measure of which metals are present in the body. Chelation treatments continue until the metals stop showing up in provoked urine samples.
If you have high blood pressure, artery disease, a chronic illness of any kind, or wish to take a preventive measure for your health, consider chelation as safe and inexpensive way to “get the lead out”.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.