Health Library

Metal Toxicity: Your Brain Under Siege

IMAGE The body can clear many harmful items from the body. It can often break down or pass these toxins before they cause damage. Heavy metals, however, can be harder to clear. High amounts of these metals can cause several health problems. Avoiding them becomes a very important step.

Natural Toxins

Metals can be found all around. They are a natural part of the environment but can also be added from manufacturing. Many metals can enter the food system this way. They may pass into water that we drink or be in grains used in food chain. The metals are also used in making common items. We may be exposed to metals through:

  • Range of items that we buy such as toys, jewelry, plates
  • Work
  • Industrial waste
  • Aluminum from medications (antacids) or medical procedures (dialysis and IV tube feeding)
  • Contaminated paint or soil (young children sometime eat)
  • Food or drink that contain high level of metals

Some metals play important roles in the body. They are still harmful in high amounts. Others only cause harm. Most metals can effect the brain which makes them dangerous.

The Brain As a Target Organ

Toxins will build up specific organs. This will determine what symptoms will be. Heavy metals often affect the brain and spinal cord and may cause:

  • Changes in mental status or personality
  • Nervousness
  • Feel irritated easily
  • Insomnia
  • Delirium
  • Tremor
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor memory
  • Numbness and tingling of the arms and legs
  • Jerking of a muscle
  • Changes in or loss of hearing, vision, or taste
  • Problem with concentration
  • Seizures

Children at Risk

The brain and spine develop quickly through childhood. Toxins can cause more harm during this time than later in adulthood. Children also eat more calories per pound of body weight than adults. This may increase the level of toxic metals from food.

Infants also have a habit of putting things into their mouths. This can increase exposure of some metals, especially lead. High levels of lead in the blood have been tied to lower IQ, poor school grades, and behavior problems. High levels of blood lead can be life-threatening.

Mercury Poisoning

Mercury is used in many industries. There have been many outbreaks of mercury toxicity. Industry in Japan spilled waste into a bay that many fished in. Eating the fish caused mercury poisoning in many residents. A beauty cream made in Mexico caused another outbreak in many countries.

In the Home

Mercury can be found in thermostats, fluorescent light bulbs, barometers, glass thermometers, and blood pressure devices. Mercury may spill out if the devices are broken. Vapors from the mercury may also be released into the air. Major efforts are underway to remove mercury in households. For example, mercury thermometers are no longer made or used in medical centers.

The amount of spilled mercury is important. Smaller amounts can be managed by individuals. Follow the directions from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. You may want to print these directions. Keep them for later reference in case you cannot use the internet when a spill happens.

Spills larger than the amount found in a thermometer are an environmental emergency. It will need to be cleaned up by a professional. For larger spills follow EPA directions to:

  • Call your local health department or state/regional EPA. They will let you know what steps to take.
  • Keep the area closed off. Close doors. Cover openings between rooms with plastic.
  • Turn off heat. This will slow vapors from mercury.
  • Open windows.
  • Do not vacuum or use a broom to sweep up mercury.
  • Turn off fans and air conditioning. They can spread vapors through the house.
  • Keep children away from the spill. If possible, keep them out of the house.
  • Do not let anyone walk through the spill.
  • Do not pour mercury down the drain or flush it down the toilet.

Cosmetics

Eye-area cosmetics may also have mercury. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows no more than trace amounts. The agency keeps a close watch for reports of problems. Products may be banned if high levels are found.

Dental Fillings

A type of dental filling has some mercury. Dental amalgam or silver fillings have about 50% mercury. Mercury vapors can be released over time. The FDA states that the amount of mercury is well within the safe level for the body.

Fillings have been tracked for many years. The research has not shown that this type of filling is harmful. You can ask for fillings made of other material. They may not be right for some needs. The dentist can go over your choices.

Lead Poisoning

Lead can build up in the brain and cause injury to the cells. The brain has a natural barrier that keeps germs and other items away from the brain. Lead can cause breaks in this barrier. It allows drugs and toxins to better access the brain. Lead also damages cells in the brain that are important for learning and memory, behavior, and the muscle coordination. That is why it is so important to make sure that children do not eat paint chips or inhale lead-containing dust.

Dishes

Some dishes with a lead-based glaze. Crystal glasses may also be leaded. You may absorb some lead when you use them. New products will have warning labels. Older pieces, like antiques, may not have warning labels.

Paint

Lead-based paint is another source of lead poisoning. Most houses built before 1978 has lead paint. The lead can be found in house dust, which can be inhaled or flaked off chips of paint. Infants may put flakes or dust in their mouth. Local health department offer programs to help get rid of lead that may pose a risk to children in homes.

Soil

Lead occurs naturally in the soil. The amount has been increased by leaded gas deposits (no longer used), paint chips from outside areas, or industry. Lead exposure happens when soil is eaten, again common in young children. Vegetables that grow in lead-contaminated soil can also increase lead in the body.

Plumbing

Older buildings may contain corroded lead plumbing pipes and fixtures. Exposure can also happen from pipes that are not often used. The longer water sits in pipes, the more lead it is exposed to. Water companies monitor lead content. Look for local water reports.

Aluminum

Aluminum is found in common products such as antacids (Maalox Advanced Regular Strength, Mylanta), pain relievers (Bufferin), antiperspirants, cosmetics, and pots and pans. It is easy to see how aluminum enters the human body. There are also less obvious aluminum sources including many of our foods and water sources.

Aluminum is the most common metal in the earth’s crust. It has no natural job in the human body. This may be why our gut is very bad at absorbing it. Less than 1% of aluminum we eat is absorbed into the body. Healthy kidneys can often remove what does get absorbed. Those with kidney problems may have trouble removing aluminum. This can lead to a dangerous build up, dementia ,and other problems of brain or spine.

And the List Goes On

Many metals play important roles in the body. It is the high levels that can cause trouble. Some illnesses may also make it hard for the body to get rid of metals which can lead to problems. Metals known to cause injury are manganese, iron, copper, thallium, and cadmium. Mercury, lead, and arsenic are probably the most serious metallic threats to human health. This is why it is important to know what we take into our home or bodies.

Resources

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov

United States Environmental Protection Agency
http://www.epa.gov

Canadian Resources

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

Healthy Alberta
http://www.healthyalberta.com

References

Aluminum measurement, blood. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/lab-monograph/aluminum-measurement-blood. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=700.13. Updated April 1, 2019. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Lead. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: www.epa.gov/lead. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Lead poisoning in children. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/lead-poisoning-in-children/. Updated June 2, 2020. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Mercury in your environment. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/mercury. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Prevention tips. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.htm. Updated July 30, 2019. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Public health statement for mercury. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=112&tid=24. Accessed June 8, 2020.