Toxic metals: Where they come from and how they affect us

Most of our toxic metal exposure comes from weathered rock that is dissolved in soils, rivers, lakes and seawater.

by Dr. Carole Eastman — 

Sometimes occurring naturally and sometimes introduced by humans, toxic metals are everywhere. As a result of this chronic low-level exposure, as well as the body’s inability to adequately excrete them, these toxic heavy metals accumulate and are deposited in tissues such as bone, brain, kidney, liver, arteries, heart and muscle, where they disrupt normal function. Metals like aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and nickel do not have any natural function within the body.

The end result of this accumulation is often a collection of symptoms (some quite bizarre and unrelated) that conventional medicine cannot resolve. A patient may see several doctors with chronic complaints of headaches, indigestion, fatigue, poor memory, brain fog, joint stiffness, bacterial or viral infections, low sex drive, irritability, depression, excessive sweating, dry and itchy skin, visual disturbances, stress, clumsiness, infertility and vertigo before receiving a diagnosis of heavy metal toxicity. Even high cholesterol and blood pressure can result from toxic overload.

Most of our toxic metal exposure comes from weathered rock that is dissolved in soils, rivers, lakes and seawater. Volcanoes also release toxic metals into the atmosphere where they can travel across several continents.

In the last 100 years, we have increased our use of heavy metals in industrial and agricultural processes, and in personal products. At particular risk are individuals who work in the pharmaceutical industry, laboratory workers, hairdressers, painters, cosmetic workers, dentists and dental workers, printers, engravers, photographers, artists, welders, metalworkers, potters and chemists. However, it is possible to identify our sources of exposure and make appropriate choices to minimize contamination.

Urine testing, that utilizes a chelating agent to pull these metals out of tissues, thereby eliminating them through the kidneys so they can be measured, is an accurate and reliable test. However, there is no test that can measure the total amount of metals stored in the body. Removing the metals with chelation is the only way to thoroughly rid the body of these toxins.

Common toxic elements

Aluminum — One of the most widely used metals, it is found in baking powder, cookware, water, antacids, processed cheese, antiperspirants, aluminum foil, animal feed, cans, color additives, cosmetics, pesticides, toothpaste and bleached flour. Symptoms/conditions include headache, fatigue, bone pain, dementia and memory loss, low hemoglobin, severe trembling, clumsiness, behavior problems, and damage to the central nervous system that may result in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

Arsenic — One of the most toxic elements, exposure may occur through food, water, air and skin contact with contaminated soil or water. Found in treated wood, seafood (mussels, oysters, shrimp), pesticides, defoliants, insecticides, hazardous waste sites, wine, chemical, electronic and photoelectric processes. Symptoms/conditions include hair loss, white nail streaks, muscle pain, garlic odor, anorexia, low blood pressure, chest pain, nausea, diarrhea, dermatitis, fatigue and cancer (especially of the lung and skin).

Cadmium — With 25,000 tons of this element released annually into the environment, about half of it goes into rivers through the weathering of rocks, while other particles drift into the air from forest fires and volcanoes. The rest is released through human activities like manufacturing. Exposure occurs mainly through foods such as liver, mushrooms, shellfish, mussels, cocoa powder and dried seaweed. Other sources are tobacco, mining, phosphate fertilizers, soft water, welding, batteries, pigments, metal coatings, plastics and sewage sludge. Symptoms/conditions include high and low blood pressure, fatigue, anemia, nausea, diarrhea, stomach pains, reproductive failure, damage to the central nervous system or immune system, psychological disorders, cancer and possibly DNA damage.

Lead — A particularly dangerous chemical as it accumulates in the human body, as well as along the entire food chain. Most environmental lead is the result of human activity. Found in ash, paints, solder, pewter, eating utensils, hair dye, cosmetics, cigarette smoke, canned fruit and juice, milk, newsprint, pencils, pesticides, produce grown near roads, toothpaste, wine, toys, car batteries, ammunition, stained glass, and computer and television screens. Symptoms/conditions include anemia due to iron deficiency, rise in blood pressure, miscarriage, loss of coordination, difficulty concentrating, weakened immune function, low libido, infertility, fetal brain damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems in children, kidney damage, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, indigestion and muscle weakness.

Mercury — Environmental mercury is increasing as we release more into the air through fossil fuel combustion, mining, smelting and solid waste combustion. All mercury released will end up in the soil and surface waters. Found in shellfish and nearly all fish, dental amalgams, batteries, electrical relays, fungicides, paints, explosives, body powders, fabric softeners, floor waxes, insecticides, paper products, wood preservatives, antiseptics, tanning leather, cereals, psoriasis ointment and adhesives. Symptoms/conditions include headache, tremors, increased blood pressure and heart rate, skin rash, metallic taste, irritability, nausea, diarrhea, poor concentration, gastrointestinal irritation, eye irritation, nerve, brain and kidney damage, DNA changes, cancer, birth defects (e.g., mental retardation, blindness and seizures), miscarriages and dizziness.

Nickel — Released into the air by power plants and trash incinerators. It is essential in small quantities, but toxic when uptake is too high. Found in tobacco smoke, volcanic ash, jewelry, water, batteries, stainless steel cookware, tea, food grown in polluted soils, dental material, nuts, detergents, chocolate and fats, which contain severely high quantities. Symptoms/conditions include dermatitis, allergic reactions (usually to its use in jewelry), fever, headache, birth defects, asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart disorders, increased risk of lung, larynx and prostate cancer, and increased inflammation.


Dr. Carole Eastman is a naturopathic physician in practice in Central Phoenix with a focus on restoring optimal health through the removal of toxic elements. She has a degree in microbiology and has worked in virology and nephrology research and in the clinical laboratory at St. Luke’s Hospital. 602-283-0631 or 602-405-6508.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 4, August/September 2006.

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