What are Aluminum, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury Doing in Our Bodies?

By James A. Jackson, Ph.D.

According to Doctors Bralley and Lord in their book, Laboratory Evaluations in Molecular Medicine, the environment contains toxic organic compounds and toxic metals. While toxic organic compounds can be chemically destroyed, toxic metals are indestructible.

Toxic metals tend to accumulate undetected in the body over time and after a certain point, a small increase will lead to a number of symptomatic health problems. The toxic metal may attack one or more targets in the body. These may include membrane or structural proteins, enzymes, membrane lipids, or the DNA. They may displace an essential mineral, such as cadmium replacing zinc in certain enzyme reactions. This will make the enzyme inactive. Also, the body has the ability to add methyl groups to metals; this makes the metal lipid-soluble and is much more toxic to the brain since the brain is about 60% fat. Many of these metals can lead to the generation of free radicals with resulting damage to cell membranes, proteins, and DNA.

Aluminum (AL) is the most abundant element in the earth’s crust, after oxygen and silicon. It is used in many consumer products such as cat litter, antiperspirants, infant formula, baking soda, foils, pickled foods, toothpaste, baking soda, certain antacids, milk products, vanilla powder, and nasal sprays, to name a few. Cow’s milk has 2 to 3 times more aluminum than human milk and some infant formulas have up to 10 times the amount of aluminum.

Aluminum also is used in the production of medicinal products. Trace aluminum contamination may not be of concern to adults with normal kidney function; it is of concern in the elderly, infants, and adolescents. Acid rain falling on earth high in aluminum dissolves the aluminum, which then can enter and contaminate the water supply.

Absorbed aluminum binds to albumin in the blood. Albumin transports the aluminum to all parts of the body. As a result, it builds up in the brain and bones. The neurofibrillary tangles seen in plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s patients all contain aluminum. In bone, aluminum replaces calcium, which causes disruption in bone formation; prevents reabsorption of calcium back into the blood; and interferes with the normal physiological control of the parathyroid gland.

Aluminum toxicity symptoms include abnormal speech, myoclonic jerks, convulsions, osteomalacic fractures, and progressive encephalopathy. Aluminum can be measured in blood, urine, and hair. In order to prevent build up, especially in those groups mentioned above, one should avoid exposure. Read the label, read the label, and read the label! Everyone is exposed to heavy metals from food, beverages, and the environment. One could take some phosphorus (amount prescribed by a healthcare worker) as phosphorus lowers the intestinal absorption of aluminum. Foods high in fiber reduce the intestinal absorption of aluminum as well as other toxic metals. These include all kinds of beans, cooked vegetables, whole grain bread, whole grain cereals, oatmeal, and
fresh fruits, especially apples.

The medical treatment for elevated aluminum in the tissues is chelation; either with oral chemicals or with intravenous EDTA. These should be administered by a health professional trained in chelation therapy. One can increase elimination of aluminum and other heavy metals by taking natural chelating substances. These form soluble complexes that can be removed by the kidney. Three such compounds are methionine, 3000 mg/day taken with enough vitamin B12 and folate to prevent homocysteine elevation; vitamin C, 3000 mg/day; and lipoic acid, 100 mg three times a day.

Lead (Pb) toxin has been around for thousands of years. The most recent contamination with lead is toys manufactured in China. Other sources of lead are drinking water from old lead pipes or pipes joined together with lead containing solder, old houses with paint containing lead, some paints used by artists, soil close to major highways, vegetables grown in lead-contaminated soil, milk
from animals grazing on lead containing soil, painted glassware, painted pencils, putty, curtain weights, car batteries, cigarettes, tobacco, lead shot from firing ranges, and lead-arsenate pesticides.

Lead ingested by mothers can be passed on to infants through breast milk. Lead can enter the body through ingestion, breathing, and skin contact. The diet may contain about 300 micrograms (ug) of lead. A well-nourished adult will only absorb about 1% to 10% of ingested lead while children can absorb up to 50% of their dietary intake. Any diseases of the G.I. system will increase the uptake of lead, as will a decreased intake of calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, and vitamin D. Diets high in these nutrients or supplements may prevent the increase in lead absorption. Symptoms of lead poisoning are anemia, kidney dysfunction, hypertension, anorexia, muscle discomfort, constipation, metallic taste in the mouth, and low I.Q., especially in children.

Lead is especially damaging to the brain and nervous system. It can easily cross the blood brain barrier. Lead interferes with many calcium dependent ion-channels and many enzyme systems in the brain. Children with symptoms of fatigue, impaired concentration, short-term memory deficits, insomnia, anxiety, and irritability, with reduced performance on visual intelligence or visual motor concentration tests, may be suffering from lead poisoning.

Tests for measuring lead include serum or plasma, urine, whole blood, and hair. Whole blood concentrates lead about 75-fold greater than serum or plasma and has the highest correlation with toxicity. The CDC defines the whole blood lead test as the preferred method. The hair is a good marker for lead exposure and could give an indication of exposure for the last two months. The World Health Organization has listed a level of 20 ug/dL or higher in adults as elevated; in children, the level is 10 ug/dL or higher. The treatment is with oral or IV chelation by health care professionals trained in chelation.

Mercury (Hg) is as well known as lead is as a toxic mineral. Hat makers in the 17th and 18th centuries treated felt hats with mercury. Many went insane or “mad,” hence the term “mad as a hatter.”
Remember Alice in Wonderland? As Dr. Bralley and Lord point out in their book, Sir Issac Newton, in his later years, suffered from dark moods and personality changes. An analysis on a sample of his hair(long after his death) showed highly elevated levels of mercury as a result of exposure while performing experiments with mercury.

Mercury is widespread in nature. The earth’s crust releases about 30,000 tons of mercury into the atmosphere a year. Second to this is man-made mercury. About 6000 tons/year are used for electrical switches and as a fungicide, and about 90 tons are used to make dental amalgams. The new “energy efficient” light bulbs contain mercury! The elemental of mercury(Hg0) is non-toxic;
however, when ionized to the inorganic form (Hg2 +) it becomes toxic. Another toxic form is alkyl mercury. Microorganisms in the environment and the G.I. tract can convert mercury to the toxic
form. Mercury passes up the food chain in deep-sea fishes (tuna & albacore) to humans. The toxic mercury will accumulate very quickly in the brain and nervous system.

Mercury released from dental amalgams and its effect on health is very controversial. Amalgams contain up to 50% mercury. Small amounts (20 ug) are released each day from the amalgam surface. Hot liquids and chewing will accelerate the release and the bacteria in the mouth and intestine will convert it to the toxic forms. Whole blood mercury level in a “normal population” was <5ug/L. Dentists and dental technicians had levels of up to15 ug/L. Symptoms of mercury toxicity are irritability, fatigue,  insomnia, short-term memory loss, tremor, stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth), gingivitis, G.I. and renal problems, decreased immunity, pain in joints and limbs, weight loss, and metallic taste. Treatment of mercury toxicity is oral or IV chelation. Selenium,50ug/day, will protect against cellular toxic effects of mercury. Mercury can be measured in whole blood, urine, and hair.

Cadmium is a toxic metal found in drinking water from galvanized pipes. It is also found in refined wheat flour, canned evaporated milk, processed foods, oysters, kidneys, liver, cigarette smoke and tobacco products, some fertilizers, ceramic glazes, paint pigments, electroplating, silver polish, polyvinyl plastics, rubber carpet backing, nickel cadmium batteries, automobile exhaust,
and rust proof materials.

Cadmium competes with zinc at all cellular level binding sites, especially enzyme binding sites. It is referred to as an “enzyme poison.” It is very toxic to the kidneys. Some symptoms of poisoning are femoral pain, lumbago, osteopenia, renal dysfunction, hypertension, vascular dysfunction, and pulmonary dysfunction. Zinc, 50 ug/day, competes with cadmium for binding sites and is a treatment, as is chelation.

Be careful what you eat, drink, and breathe. It may contain something extra!

Reference: Laboratory Evaluations in Molecular Medicine, by L.A. Bralley and R.S. Lord, 2001, IAMM, Norcross, GA