Heavy (Toxic) Metals Testing – The Hidden Risks Among Us

Posted by Medical Board on April 2, 2021 in Uncategorized Last updated on April 9, 2021 Heavy (toxic) metals testing

Heavy Metals Testing

Heavy Metals

Humans and animals get exposed to heavy metals through inhalation, skin absorption, and diet.  Heavy metals get trapped in soil, groundwater, plant life and vegetation.  Toxic metals are difficult to metabolize and accumulate in the bones, liver, kidneys, and heart of humans.  

Heavy metals are everywhere.  Toxins released into the environment come from many sources.  Manufacturing, agricultural production, automobile emissions, mining, and treated surfaces such as wood and plastics all contribute to heavy metals toxicity.  Heavy metals may be found in fertilizers and pesticides as well as stabilizers added to foods.  Other sources of toxic metals include cigarette smoke, volcanic eruption, emissions from smelting plants or foundries, even dental fillings.  

 These all contribute to heavy metals pollution in the air we breath and the food and water we ingest.  In agriculture production heavy metals eventually filter down into the water supply where plant life, animals, and humans consume them.  Because of this fish, rice, and green leafy vegetables contain higher than normal levels of heavy metals.   

Essential Elements

Essential elements play an important role in our overall health and well-being.  These help mediate a number of biochemical processes such as metabolism and the transport of oxygen through the blood.  They are considered essential because without them to facilitate many important functions, the body would break down and illness would occur.

Essential elements are necessary to:

  • Synthesize neurotransmitters
  • Activate specific hormones
  • Support nervous system
  • Produce hemoglobin
  • Support antioxidant enzymes
  • Support cellular metabolism
  • Facilitate replication and transcription of nucleic acids

If essential elements are not absorbed into the body within optimal ranges, they can be ineffective, unhealthy and even toxic.  

What Is Measured?

Heavy Metals and Essential Elements tests measure levels of: 

Hg (Mercury), Cd (Cadmium), Pb (Lead), Zn (Zinc), Cu (Copper), Se (Selenium), Mg (Magnesium), I (Iodine), Br (Bromine), Li (Lithium), As (Arsenic), Crtn (Creatinine).  

Related Symptoms

Heavy metals toxicity may cause an increased risk for:

  • Dementia
  • Infertility 
  • Diabetes  
  • Cancer 
  • Autoimmune disorders

May also cause damage to:

  • Liver 
  • Kidneys 
  • Brain 
  • Cardiovascular system 
  • Nervous system 
  • Endocrine system

Test Method

Dried urine 

Dried blood spot

According to the National Poisoning Data System (NPDS) of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) more than 8,000 Americans reported toxic exposure to heavy metals in 2019.  Nearly 2500 of those were children under the age of six.

In fact, more than 4 million U.S. households alone contain lead where children are living and childhood exposure to lead and arsenic is high in other parts of the world overall.

Heavy Metals, What Are They?

Humans and animals get exposed to heavy metals through inhalation, skin absorption, and diet.  Heavy metals get trapped in soil, groundwater, plant life, and vegetation.  Toxic metals are difficult to metabolize and accumulate in the bones, liver, kidneys, and heart of humans.  

Heavy metals are everywhere.  Toxins released into the environment come from many sources.  Manufacturing, agricultural production, automobile emissions, mining, and treated surfaces such as wood and plastics all contribute to heavy metals toxicity.  Heavy metals may be found in fertilizers and pesticides as well as stabilizers added to foods.  Other sources of toxic metals include cigarette smoke, volcanic eruption, emissions from smelting plants or foundries, even dental fillings.  

These all contribute to heavy metals pollution in the air we breathe and the food and water we ingest.  In agriculture production, heavy metals eventually filter down into the water supply where plant life, animals, and humans consume them.  Because of this fish, rice, and green leafy vegetables contain higher than normal levels of heavy metals.   

Related Symptoms

Heavy metals toxicity may cause an increased risk for:

  • Dementia
  • Infertility 
  • Diabetes  
  • Cancer 
  • Autoimmune disorders

May also cause damage to:

  • Liver 
  • Kidneys 
  • Brain 
  • Cardiovascular system 
  • Nervous system 
  • Endocrine system

How did I get exposed to Heavy Metals?

Workplace Toxicity—Occupational Exposure

Common sources for high exposure to arsenic include soil, rocks, and water in or near hazard waste sites.  High levels of arsenic can lead to death if exposure is too high.  Beryllium exposure is most common in areas where extraction, mining, and processing of alloy metals takes place.  Lung and skin conditions may result from beryllium exposure.  Cadmium is among the most toxic of all heavy metals.  This is most often found in the industrial workplace.  Welders may be exposed to cadmium in solders and alloys that contain cadmium.

Hexavalent Chromium may be found in the form of calcium chromate, chromium trioxide, lead chromate, strontium chromate, or zinc chromate.  These elements cause cancer, especially in the lungs.  Vulnerable individuals are those who work with cromate pigments used in primer coatings.  Lead is responsible for the highest incidence of heavy metals overexposure.  Individuals who work at radiator shops, smelters, firing ranges, and construction work are most commonly exposed to lead.

Mercury is present in gold and silver mining operations, in transport, and in seafood. Overexposure to mercury can cause permanent nervous system damage and kidney disease.[4]

Heavy metals have always been present in the universe and are no more toxic to humans than they have been through the ages.  The difference, however, is the high level of toxic heavy metals present in the air, soil, water, and plant life due to human behavior.

How do heavy metals cause damage?

Heavy metals accumulate in the body over time and begin to cause disruption in organs such as the heart, brain and kidneys.  Metals also replace other essential elements in the body necessary for natural biological function.  These become depleted and interfere with overall health and wellness.[11]

The Need for Essential Elements

Essential elements play an important role in our overall health and well-being.  These help mediate a number of biochemical processes such as metabolism and the transport of oxygen through the blood.  They are considered essential because without them to facilitate many important functions, the body would break down and illness would occur.

Essential elements are necessary to:

  • Synthesize neurotransmitters
  • Activate specific hormones
  • Support nervous system
  • Produce hemoglobin
  • Support antioxidant enzymes
  • Support cellular metabolism
  • Facilitate replication and transcription of nucleic acids

If essential elements are not absorbed into the body within optimal ranges, they can be ineffective, unhealthy and even toxic.  

Heavy metals enter the body through food, water, skin exposure and heavy metals and can be defined as highly dense when compared to the density of water.  Heavy metals are naturally present in the earth’s crust and natural exposure to metals has occurred through volcanic eruption, and weathering.  Leaching and erosion from heavy metals into the groundwater and soil can cause natural heavy metals toxicity.  The majority of heavy metals overexposure and poisoning however involves industrial activity such as mining and metals fabrication.[12]

Metals are in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.  This is due in part to the natural elements in our environment.  Industrial processes, manufacturing, and agricultural production create most of the heavy metals toxicity in humans and animals however.

Who oversees our food for heavy metals contamination?

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) sets specific standards for foods and drugs and regularly tests for heavy metals in products for human consumption. Animal feed and cosmetics are also monitored for harmful levels of heavy metal toxins.  Some foods are actually fortified with minerals such as iron necessary to carry oxygen throughout the blood.  Other heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury have no health benefit to humans.

Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are the metals most commonly found in the foods we eat and are the most toxic to children and their neurological development. 

The FDA evaluates hundreds of foods each year, measuring levels for about 400 contaminants.  According to administration data, no one food source is responsible for heavy metals exposure.  Once significant levels of heavy metals are detected in food however, efforts to improve growing conditions and production practices are made.[2]

Who’s At Risk?

The presence of heavy metals toxicity and its effects on human populations are based on:

  • Age
  • Type of metal
  • Amount of metal ingested
  • Developmental stage in life[1]

Although all populations are at risk for metals exposure, babies and young children under the age of 6 are the most vulnerable to toxic levels of heavy metals according to federal research.  Depending on a child’s developmental stage biological connections may be damaged by heavy metals exposure. 

Reproductive Health and Chronic Heavy Metals Poisoning

Heavy metals exposure by the mother could possibly lead to, miscarriage, stillbirth, or birth defects. A baby’s brain development can be adversely affected as well.  Heavy metals exposure can affect newborn babies if the mother is exposed to heavy metals and transfers toxicity through breast milk.[8] 

Environmental Testing

Testing for lead levels in the soil is important for a number of reasons.  Though lead is harmful to both children and adults, the consequences of lead exposure are especially significant in children.

Lead may mimic other minerals necessary for the body including iron, calcium and zinc.  Most of the time lead gets deposited in the bones interfering with red blood cell production.  Lead also prevents calcium absorption necessary for bones, muscles and blood vessel function.  Because children are still developing neurologically, lead poisoning is especially detrimental to them.

Lead exposure in children can result in learning disabilities, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), stunted growth, kidney damage, behavioral problems, and anemia.  Hearing impairment and stomach pain are also associated with lead exposure.[14]

Arsenic poisoning is pervasive throughout the world with an estimated several million people exposed due to toxic ground water.[12] 

How do I know if I have been exposed to heavy metals?

The majority of adults and many children have been exposed to some level of heavy metals.  To determine exposure to specific metals and whether levels are toxic, a blood or urine test is performed.  The most common test measures levels of lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium.  Other metals tested are copper, zinc, aluminum and thallium.

Acute vs. Chronic Exposure

What are signs of acute heavy metals poisoning?

  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Numbness
  • Coma[9]

Symptoms of chronic heavy metals poisoning include:

  • Nausea, abdominal discomfort
  • Diarrhea
  • Hands and feet tingling
  • Difficulty breathing     
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain

How is heavy metals toxicity treated?

Heavy metals toxicity is sometimes treated through chelation therapy.[6]

Chelation therapy involves the introduction of chelating agents that target parts of the body where metal toxicity has settled.  Chelating agents are compounds that bind metal ions to chelates that are then excreted from the body.  These may be delivered in pill form, by IV, or through an injection.  Before considering chelation therapy, you and your doctor should carefully weigh the benefits along with the side effects that accompany the treatment.[5]

What can I do to help avoid heavy metals toxicity?

One of the best ways to limit heavy metals exposure is to prevent it as much as possible.

This includes:

Removing shoes before entering the home to limit dirt and dust that may contain heavy metals.

Monitoring fish and seafood intake and following guidelines for intake involving mercury levels in fish.

Becoming familiar with possible sources of lead contamination and limiting toxic exposure.

Vegetables contain heavy metals due to contaminated ground water and soil.    

The following vegetables are considered “low risk” for heavy metals contamination:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Beans
  • Zucchini

These are “moderate risk” vegetables:

  • Cucumbers
  • Melons

These vegetables pose the highest risk for heavy metals toxicity:

  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Radishes
  • Onions
  • Collard greens
  • Swiss chard
  • Lettuce
  • Mint
  • Cilantro[10]

New Methods to Clean Up Soil and Water

Metals contamination often occurs at former mining, smelting or industrial sites.  These areas are typically spread out over several acres of land.  Pollution, wind, and rain may carry heavy metals to other areas further contaminating the environment.  

Several remediation technologies exist to remove or reduce the harmful effects of metals contamination.  Physical removal of contaminants through excavation, stabilization of contaminated soil with phosphates, and phytoremediation through the use of growing plants that help remove toxic metals from the soil can be used.[7]

Other efforts to remove toxic heavy metals from soil include Stanford University’s trial method of rinsing soil with water and applying chemicals to attract heavy metals.  As the mixture percolates through the soil the heavy metals are pulled loose.  Once pulled through the soil, the toxins are put through an electrochemical filter that separates them from the water.[13]  

The University of California, San Diego has devised a way to detect heavy metals in drinking water by using bacteria.  Harmless strains of E. coli are introduced to the water supply and can continuously monitor for heavy metals.  This works because bacterial genomes react to specific contaminants. Placed within an encased plastic chip and attached to the faucet, several heavy metals can be detected at once.[3]

How do I know if I have heavy metals toxicity?

The Importance of Heavy Metals Testing

What Is Measured?

Heavy Metals and Essential Elements tests measure levels of: 

Hg (Mercury), Cd (Cadmium), Pb (Lead), Zn (Zinc), Cu (Copper), Se (Selenium), Mg (Magnesium), I (Iodine), Br (Bromine), Li (Lithium), As (Arsenic), Crtn (Creatinine).  

Test Method

Dried urine 

Dried blood spot

Testing for essential elements or heavy metals toxicity is fast and easy.  Both dried urine and dried blood spot tests are available through discreet at-home test kits.  Depending on the element profile needed, either a urine or blood sample will be required.  This can be collected in the privacy of your own home and returned to the lab for analysis in the prepaid shipping envelope.  Results are then provided through a secure patient portal in 3-5 days.

References

1Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Metals and your food. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.fda.gov/food/chemicals-metals-pesticides-food/metals-and-your-food

2Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). What FDA is doing to protect consumers from toxic metals in foods. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.fda.gov/food/conversations-experts-food-topics/what-fda-doing-protect-consumers-toxic-metals-foods

3Daniel Kane, U. (2020, February 28). Scientists design way to use harmless bacteria to detect heavy metals in drinking water. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/scientists-design-way-use-harmless-bacteria-detect-heavy-metals-drinking-water

4Department of Labor logo United Statesdepartment of labor. (n.d.). Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.osha.gov/toxic-metals

5Flora, S., & Pachauri, V. (2010, July). Chelation in metal intoxication. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922724/

6Heavy metal blood test: Medlineplus medical test. (2020, December 10). Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/heavy-metal-blood-test/

7Lambert, M., Leven, B., & Green, R. (n.d.). NewMethods of Cleaning Up Have Metal in Soils and Water. Retrieved April 7, 2021, from https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.files/fileID/14295

8Lead & other heavy metals – reproductive health. (2019, November 15). Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/repro/heavymetals.html

9O. (2016, May). Heavy metals and your health: Frequently asked questions about testing, treatment and prevention. Retrieved April 7, 2021, from https://www.oregon.gov/oha/ph/HealthyEnvironments/HealthyNeighborhoods/LeadPoisoning/MedicalProvidersLaboratories/Documents/HeavyMetals.pdf

10Phil Tocco, M. (2021, March 09). Vegetable selection makes a difference in heavy metal accumulation. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/vegetable_selection_makes_a_difference_in_heavy_metal_accumulation

11Singh, R., Gautam, N., Mishra, A., & Gupta, R. (2011, May). Heavy metals and living systems: An overview. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3113373/

12Tchounwou, P., Yedjou, C., Patlolla, A., & Sutton, D. (2012). Heavy metal toxicity and the environment. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4144270/

13University, S. (2019, May 31). New process rinses heavy metals from toxic soils. Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://news.stanford.edu/2019/06/04/new-process-rinses-heavy-metals-toxic-soils/

14Why test for lead?: Delaware soil testing Program: Cooperative EXTENSION: University of Delaware. (n.d.). Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.udel.edu/academics/colleges/canr/cooperative-extension/environmental-stewardship/soil-testing/lead-testing-arsenic/

Dried blood spot

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