Heavy metals is a loose term used to describe metals in our environment. Many of these metals are naturally occurring and, at the right levels, are a part of a healthy diet. Iron, cobalt, copper, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc are examples of these “good” heavy metals.

However, many heavy metals such as mercury, plutonium, and lead are toxic to humans. We come in contact with these unfavorable metals in a variety of ways which include drinking water, paint, and soils. Perhaps the most well known heavy metal threat is lead.

Lead has been a known health hazard for some time and it’s effects are most severe with infants. Lead affects practically all systems within the body. Lead at high levels can cause convulsions, coma, and even death.

Lower levels of lead can cause adverse health effects on the central nervous system, kidney, and blood cells and has been linked to child retardation and behavioral problems. Exposure to high levels of lead in drinking water can result in delays in physical or mental development.

The main source of exposure to lead are ingesting paint chips and inhalation of dust. Lead was a common additive in paints up to and including the year 1978 after which it’s use was banned in the US. The news lately has been full of stories of products imported from overseas that contain lead based paint finishes. This is, and should be, unnerving as your child will inevitably place nearly anything he can pick up into his or her mouth.

So why is lead paint returning to the forefront of child safety 30 years later? The simple answer is money. The majority of the toys (and many other products for that matter) are manufactured overseas in countries like India, China, and Taiwan. China has been in the news of late as major toy companies have had recall after recall of toys containing lead based paint that were manufactured there.

The laws in China with regards to lead paint is actually more strict than those of the United States. The problem lies in Chinese officials enforcing these laws. Lead based paint is less expensive and therefore an attractive alternative for manufacturers.

The EPA estimates that 10 to 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in drinking water. 20% of piping systems in America still contain lead. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water. Typically, lead finds its way into your water after the water leaves your local treatment plant or your well. The source of lead in your home’s water is most likely from corrosion of pipes and the solder in your home’s plumbing. As with other water quality issues, it is good idea to have your tap water tested for lead and other heavy metals

What can you do to prevent you or your child from being exposed to lead?

  • Keep areas where children play as dust-free and clean as possible.
  • If your work or hobby involves lead, change clothes and use doormats before entering your home.
  • If your home was constructed before 1979, it is essential that you test the paint in your home for lead. You should also test the paint on any older heirloom furniture in your home.Testing Positive for Lead
    If a test returns positive for lead, do not remove lead paint yourself as you may do more harm than good. Leave lead-based paint undisturbed if it is in good condition; do not sand or burn off paint that may contain lead.Several products are available which can be applied over the lead containing paint effectively encapsulating it. This is the most cost effective method of lead abatement in your home. You can also have a professional lead abatement specialist remove the contaminated surfaces in your home. This is, of course, the most expensive and disruptive course of action.

    Mercury is another well know heavy metal linked to health threats. Though currently being phased out with the emergence of new technologies, mercury is a common component found in thermometers, florescent and neon lights, and batteries. The mercury that we don’t readily see is perhaps more of threat today than these products.

    Mercury released into the environment from the disposal of products and manufacturing wastes have entered our lakes, streams, and oceans. This mercury has found its way back through the food chain and is found at alarmingly high levels in some of our favorite seafood. Some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

    FDA recommendations

  • Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because as they are likely to contain the highest levels of mercury.
  • Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore (“white”) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  • Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.Cadmium
    Cadmium is another less well know heavy metal that is commonly found in batteries(nickel-cadmium batteries are common in cell phones and laptop computers), paint pigments, plastics, and cigarettes. As with mercury, cadmium is a carcinogen that poses a severe health threat once it is released into the environment. Soils, crops, wild life all can contain some levels of Cadmium.

    The most effective way in avoiding contact with cadmium is to properly dispose of batteries from cell phones, computers, and cordless power tools. Proper recycling of these used batteries is crucial not only for you and your child’s health, but everyone in your community. Of course, reducing your intake of cadmium is just one of the many benefits of stopping smoking.