What is a Heavy Metal?
Heavy metals are those elements that are considered toxic to living beings AND have a high density, specific gravity or atomic weight. This post is not intended to be a primer on physics. However, it’s only right to include definitions of terms used. Otherwise, readers are left confused and no closer to being educated. In that vein, basic definitions of terms related to heavy metals are provided.
Heavy Metal Terminology
Density refers to weight in relation to volume. Compare the weight of a liter of muscle mass with a liter of fat. Muscle is denser than fat and is heavier compared to the same volume of fatty tissue. Specific gravity refers to the weight of the volume of a substance in relation to the weight of an equal volume of a reference matter. Reference matters are almost always either air or water. (Temperature and pressure play into the measurement, but since this post is not intended to be a physics lesson, their impact is not described here.) As an example, helium – the gas used to inflate balloons – has a specific gravity of .164g/liter and air has a specific gravity of 1.16g/liter. This means the specific gravity of helium is less than the specific gravity of air. Atomic weight is determined by an extremely complicated method so for purposes of this post, think of it as the weight of the atoms of an element.
Common Toxic, Heavy Metals
Lead, mercury, copper and arsenic are the most commonly referred to heavy metals today. In the absence of a no standard definition of the term “heavy metal”, confusion and misinformation abounds. Specifically, there are ‘light’ metals that are considered toxic and on the flip side there are heavy metals (like gold) that are typically NOT toxic. This means that strictly determining if an element is toxic based on its density, specific gravity or atomic weight does not suffice. In addition, minerals that are essential to human health – such as zinc and copper – can be toxic in high doses. For these reasons, it pays to stay abreast of current research on and studies from reliable sources about heavy metal toxicity.
Lead is a particularly noxious element because it can stay in the body and wreak havoc on health. It is also odorless, tasteless and invisible. Fortunately, lead is no longer used in gasoline and paint. However, lead is still a major health problem and is found in dirt soiled by years of exhaust fumes from vehicles burning leaded gas, new toys made outside the U.S., dust and old house paint (pre-1978). It is found in drinking water transported via pipes that were soldered with lead.
Children are much more vulnerable to lead poisoning because of their developing brain and nervous system. While a single large dose of lead can create severe poisoning, it typically builds up over time, so symptoms may not be apparent at first exposure. Lead poisoning can be at the root of attention disorders and behavior problems, hearing deficits, kidney damage, reduced IQ and stunted body growth.
Mercury has traditionally been used in the manufacture of some light bulbs, switches and thermometers. The burning of coal releases mercury into the atmosphere. It then settles into water and land, where it can be washed into rivers, streams and oceans. Microorganisms consume and convert it to methylmercury. These microorganisms are then eaten by fish, shellfish and other animals.
The most common form of this poison is methylmercury. Exposure is most commonly from consuming fish or shellfish that contain methylmercury. In fact, most people have trace amounts of methylmercury in their tissues. This doesn’t make it safe, but rather, point to the prevalence of it in our environment. Impaired neurological development is the primary health impact of exposure to methylmercury by children, infants and fetuses. High levels of mercury exposure can cause harm to the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and immune systems of people of all ages. As with lead, fetuses, infants and children are most vulnerable to harm from mercury poisoning.
Dr. George Brewer has hypothesized that copper toxicity is responsible for the explosive growth of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in our aging population. This disease is only found in modern cultures that have copper plumbing. It is also associated with taking multi-mineral supplements. It’s also important to note the relative newness of and proliferation of Alzheimer’s disease in the last 100 or so years. The problem with exposure to these two forms of copper is that they are inorganic and therefor, bypass processing by the liver. They go directly to the blood stream and it is believed to penetrate the blood/brain barrier. Copper in whole foods is organic and is processed by the liver and thereby safely exited out of the body.
Up until 2003, arsenic was widely used to treat wood used in buildings, as a way to prevent insect infestation. Today it is mixed with either lead or copper to create a stronger alloy. Arsenic is also commonly used in insecticides and weed killers. Like other heavy metals, organic arsenic is a naturally occurring element. Although believed to not be poisonous to humans in small doses, there are studies showing health consequences. However, the amount of inorganic arsenic – a known carcinogen – in the U.S. has increased in the environment and farmlands by 1.6 million tons over the past 100 years. This means arsenic ends up in our food supply. What’s particularly scary about arsenic is that it does not break down. It can enter watersheds from rainfall runoff. It stays around for a VERY long time.
Arsenic is commonly found in rice. Water supplies in developing nations are also tainted with arsenic from normal, geological leaching processes. In modern cultures, arsenic can be found in water supplies from man-made industrial waste and mining. It has also been found in meat and dairy products as well as some cereals. Arsenic reacts with certain types of proteins, then interrupts and inactivates critical cellular functioning. Studies are finding low-dose, long-term internal consumption of arsenic is associated with certain cancers, including those of the bladder, lungs and skin as well as other chronic illnesses.
Heavy metal poisoning can cause serious damage to living beings, especially the unborn, infants and children. Lead, mercury, copper and arsenic are the most commonly referred to heavy metals today. However, there are many more that are also extremely toxic. It’s important to become educated about sources of heavy metals, in order to avoid and minimize exposure. Regular detoxification with calcium bentonite clay can help remove heavy metals from tissue. Earth’s Natural's Drinking Powder is safe for pregnant and nursing women, as well as newborns and infants. An alternative to drinking clay is to taking a detoxifying clay bath. If heavy metal exposure is suspected, using calcium bentonite clay can help.