Heavy metals are a fact of life. They’re in the soil, in the water we use for drinking and showering, and in varying levels they’re in produce, meats and grains; they reach us through both industrial and non-industrial sources. While some heavy metals serve no useful purpose in our bodies, others are necessary to our bodily functions in small quantities—it’s when they build up to damaging or even toxic levels that they can become a health risk.
Among the heavy metals listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) that present the biggest risks to your health are:
There are metals beyond those named in WHO’s top ten list that can also compromise your health, including aluminum, cobalt, selenium, antimony, silver and others. The level of danger these metals present varies—outside acceptable ranges, some can be life-threatening while others can cause health risks that range in severity. WHO states that over “25 percent of total burden of disease is linked to environmental factors including exposure to toxic chemicals”—this includes both chemicals and metals. However, the first four heavy metals in the above list are considered the most dangerous.
Having a high level of heavy metals in your body can go unnoticed by health care professionals. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that health care professionals don’t recognize or suspect symptoms of heavy metals in a patient’s body because their training doesn’t include environmental and occupational medicine, and there’s also “inadequate management or failure of management” for metal-related problems. The NIH goes on to state that generally, “health care workers…have limited knowledge and skills in evaluating those patients who suffer from occupational health-related problems.” In fact, testing for a variety of heavy metals is not typically part of normal blood testing outside of functional medicine.
Heavy metals can accumulate in the body, causing both acute and chronic health problems ranging from bronchitis, dermatitis, fatigue, tremors and irritability to metabolic disruption, kidney/liver damage, bone fractures and neurological damage, the most extreme being heavy metal poisoning.
Because the organs and brains of infants and children are still developing, as well as the fact that their bodies absorb more heavy metals than adults, they are particularly vulnerable to the negative health impact of heavy metals. Unfortunately, tests have shown that baby and toddler foods all contain some measurable level of more dangerous heavy metals, some of which could pose health problems when consumed even once a day on a regular basis.
Your body needs a certain amount of metals like copper, iron and zinc in order to function properly, but even those can cause heavy metal poisoning if their levels become too high. While we can’t always avoid the heavy metals in our water and air (though a good home water filtration system can help), we can try to minimize the amount we take in through the foods we eat and our overall lifestyle.
For example, cigarettes expose smokers to heavy amounts of cadmium (smokers’ bodies can have twice as much cadmium as nonsmokers); pesticides and fungicides in food, either sprayed on or absorbed through water/soil; dental amalgams containing mercury; old paint containing lead; coal burning; some industrial processes and other sources. These are far from the only sources where you may encounter heavy metals—cosmetics, antacids, personal care products, aluminum cans and other everyday items can add to your body’s metal burden.
But don’t lose hope—you can minimize or eliminate your exposure to some of these products and foods by avoiding known carriers of heavy metals (like substituting fish with low metal levels for those with high levels), reading labels, and checking reliable online sources for alternative products with safer ingredients. Your functional medicine doctor can also determine the best ways detoxify and help you prevent metals from building up in your body.