Heavy Metals And Our Increasing Exposure In Asia
It is common knowledge that we live in a toxic world and the need to define the toxicity burden around us within our communities has grown due to the increased concerns of how toxins affect our health. A group of toxins called heavy metals are toxic to us because they form poisonous soluble compounds without our bodies, disrupting functions in multiple organ systems, and thus linked to various diseases such as cancer1, heart disease2, and dementia3. More concerning though is how the half-life of mercury can take several decades to break down in people with compromised detoxification systems4. This insidious but persistent exposure to heavy metals is commonly overlooked in conventional medicine.
Since the start of the industrial revolution our exposure to mercury has been steadily increasing. The process of mining for coal for energy in Western nations back in the 19th and 20th centuries has contributed to much of the West’s economic growth but also exposure to mercury.5 However, China’s massive industrial growth in the last 20 years has been fueled by coal-fired power stations releasing much mercury into air, which then settles onto soil, plants, water and humans. This exposure has now contaminated rice growing paddy fields across the region6. This is concerning because although methyl-mercury is less in rice than fish, people in China and Hong Kong consume more rice than other parts of the world, hence their overall exposure to methyl-mercury is now higher. Traditional sources of methyl-mercury like fish7 are still prevalent, so consuming a diet rich in rice and fish, a staple in China and other regions, could inadvertently be poisoning you.
Lead, another heavy metal is widely prevalent in Asia8, which has been shown to demonstrate quantified loss in intelligence in young children across many locations. Poor environmental monitoring and poor regulatory control of manufacturing and industrial processes has contributed to this increased exposure. Lead has a significant role in bone density contributing to osteoporosis9 as well as other conditions like renal failure heart disease and cancer10.
Arsenic is another common heavy metal and is found up to 20 times in higher concentration in urban areas compared to rural areas11 Soil contamination from industrial and manufacturing processes increase the plant uptake of inorganic arsenic and thus increase the risk of a range of chronic conditions including cancer12 and heart disease13
It’s these 3 heavy metals which make up the bulk of the heavy metal burden on human health. This total ‘body burden’ of stored heavy metals in our bodies is creating the tipping points of uncontrolled inflammation, oxidation, DNA damage and ultimately chronic diseases in the body.
So how can you tell your body burden of heavy metals, and can you do anything about it? In Functional Medicine we assess toxicity burden by one of two ways. Firstly, we can check the blood levels of heavy metals, however this is only relevant for acute exposure. For more chronic exposure it is recommended to consider a chelation challenge test whereby a chelating agent is added to the body to ‘pull’ the heavy metals stored in fat and bone out into the urine. This is more indicative of chronic exposure. The liver is the main excretory organ for ridding the body of heavy metals with the kidneys supporting behind eliminating metals like arsenic.
In some people the excretory mechanisms are compromised for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they maybe genetically deficient in producing some of the enzymes responsible for eliminating heavy metals like glutathione. Glutathione is the predominant enzyme for helping you eliminate heavy metals. Some people produce less glutathione and are therefore more prone to toxin accumulation. Secondly, if the nutrients for supporting detoxification pathways are deficient in the diet – these include amino acids, B-vitamins, zinc, selenium, magnesium, potassium amongst others. Finally, underlying conditions can hinder detoxification, like a fatty liver, cirrhosis, or poor kidney function for example, which slow down the elimination processes.
To support detoxification there are various strategies recommended. Firstly, eliminating sources of contamination found in drinking water and food will slow down the build up of the body burden of toxins. Then we can enhance detoxification by either following a supplemental protocol taken over a period of several months to slowly and safely eliminates the toxins, or for people who are more anxious to rid the heavy metals from their bodies, chelation therapy is also an option. Chelation therapy is an IV-based therapy. It is a safe and more intensive method to bind the heavy metals to the chelating agent which is taken out by urine. Research is now showing that as well as reducing the body burden of heavy metals, chelation therapy can successfully help reduce cardio-vascular disease and helping neurological conditions.14 This helps to demonstrate the principle of how heavy metals contribute to chronic diseases. Ultimately, being more careful and analytical about our food and beverage purchases and choices, together with how we live in our communities, can help reduce our toxicity burden thereby helping us enjoy longer happier lives with family and friends.
- Zefferino R, Piccoli C, Ricciardi N, Scrima R, Capitanio N. Possible Mechanisms of Mercury Toxicity and Cancer Promotion: Involvement of Gap Junction Intercellular Communications and Inflammatory Cytokines. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017
- Genchi G, Sinicropi MS, Carocci A, Lauria G, Catalano A. Mercury Exposure and Heart Diseases. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(1):74. Published 2017 Jan 12.
- Mutter J, Curth A, Naumann J, Deth R, Walach H. Does inorganic mercury play a role in Alzheimer’s disease? A systematic review and an integrated molecular mechanism. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;22(2):357-374.
- Rooney JP. The retention time of inorganic mercury in the brain–a systematic review of the evidence. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2014;274(3):425-435.
- Heebink LV, Hassett DJ. Release of mercury vapor from coal combustion ash. J Air Waste Manag Assoc. 2002;52(8):927-930.
- Xiaohang Xu, Jialiang Han, Jian Pang, Xun Wang, Yan Lin, Yajie Wang, Guangle Qiu, Methylmercury and inorganic mercury in Chinese commercial rice: Implications for overestimated human exposure and health risk, Environmental Pollution, 1016/j.envpol.2019.113706, 258, (113706), (2020).
- Li M, Sherman LS, Blum JD, et al. Assessing sources of human methylmercury exposure using stable mercury isotopes. Environ Sci Technol. 2014;48(15):8800-8806.
- Caravanos J, Chatham-Stephens K, Ericson B, Landrigan PJ, Fuller R. The burden of disease from pediatric lead exposure at hazardous waste sites in 7 Asian countries. Environ Res. 2013;120:119-125.
- Akbal A, Tutkun E, Yılmaz H. Lead exposure is a risk for worsening bone mineral density in middle-aged male workers. Aging Male. 2014;17(3):189-193.
- Steenland K, Barry V, Anttila A, et al. Cancer incidence among workers with blood lead measurements in two countries. Occup Environ Med. 2019;76(9):603-610.
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Regisstry (ATSDR) Arsenic toxicological profile.Atlanta, GA: ATSDR, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 1997
- Smith AH, Hopenhayn-Rich C, Bates MN, et al. Cancer risks from arsenic in drinking water. Environ Health Perspect. 1992;97:259-267.
- Moon K, Guallar E, Navas-Acien A. Arsenic exposure and cardiovascular disease: an updated systematic review. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2012;14(6):542-555.
- Ferrero ME. Rationale for the Successful Management of EDTA Chelation Therapy in Human Burden by Toxic Metals. Biomed Res Int. 2016;2016:8274504.
Miles Price, Functional Medicine Practitioner
Miles did his initial training at Hawthorn University with an M.Sc. Holistic Nutrition. He followed this up with a professional accreditation to practice with BANT (UK) the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine in 2017 and subsequently obtained a Functional Medicine Diploma with Functional Medicine University in 2017. This was shortly followed by enrolling with the Institute of Functional Medicine on their practitioner program.