What is heavy metal poisoning? (and how to avoid it)
As a kid, I remember accidentally jabbing myself with a pencil. At the time, I convinced myself I had lead poisoning and would die any minute. Fortunately, pencils aren't made of real lead (it's graphite).
But lead isn't something you want to spend much time around. Unfortunately, though, you might be ingesting lead, and other heavy metals on a daily basis - especially if you're taking supplements like protein powders.
Don't panic, though. You'd have to eat an extraordinary amount of contaminated food to get seriously ill. Still, the research shows it can affect our health long-term.
Here's a rundown on heavy metal poisoning and how you can avoid it.
What are heavy metals?
Firstly, it's important to note that heavy metals aren't inherently dangerous.
In fact, some are essential for the body to function - like zinc, copper, chromium, manganese, and iron. However, too much of these can be bad too. But don't worry; you'd likely have to be exposed to an extreme source of the heavy metals to experience the effects of poisoning. It's unlikely you'd get too much of these from your diet.
However, some heavy metals are toxic and have no benefit to the human body. The most commonly found types of toxic heavy metals are lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium.
How are we exposed to heavy metals?
Heavy metals are found in the Earth's crust naturally. Volcanic activity and natural metal evaporation from soil and water naturally expose our environment to heavy metals.
However, the amount of heavy metals in our environment has increased dramatically due to the introduction of mining, smelting, and other metal-based industries. This includes landfills, livestock, automobiles, and works on our roads.
Besides these factors, heavy metal use in agriculture has led to contamination through the use of pesticides, insecticides, and fertilisers.
All of this activity pollutes the air, resulting in heavy metals in our soil and food (including the ocean).
So what is heavy metal poisoning?
As with most things in life, heavy metals only become a problem when you get too much of it. Unfortunately, that's becoming more and more common.
In fact, cadmium, mercury and lead are among the World Health Organisation's top 10 dangerous chemicals for public concern. These heavy metals are the main culprits contaminating our food chain.
This isn't good for the human body. Cadmium has been shown to damage our kidneys and bones. It's also a carcinogen, and scientists think it contributes to lung cancer.
Lead exposure has been shown to have a developmental effect on the foetus, affecting neurobehavior as the child grows. In adults, lead has been shown to raise blood pressure. The methylmercury accumulating in our seafood is toxic to the central nervous system.
What are the symptoms?
It's important to note that your chances of serious illness are slim: you're unlikely to get suddenly ill from heavy metals unless you've been part of a significant exposure. So please don't worry! If you are concerned, visit your doctor.
The heavy metal build-up from our food use can lead to some symptoms over time if we consume too much. This shows up as abdominal pain, dehydration, diarrhoea, vomiting, abnormal heartbeat, and numbness in your hands and feet.
While you can't eliminate your exposure to heavy metals altogether, you can take action to limit your consumption.
What food contains heavy metals?
Fish are a major source of dietary heavy metals. Virtually all fish contain mercury due to the pollution of our oceans. Limiting your fish consumption to 2-3 times a week (if at all) is recommended. While fish are high in nutrients like omega-3, you can get this in a supplement form - without any of the contaminants found in fish.
Believe it or not, many households still contain lead piping or infrastructure. If that's the case, it's important to only drink filtered water to avoid lead exposure.
If it's grown from the soil, it probably contains a small number of heavy metals. If you're concerned about your intake, consider buying organic produce. This has been produced without using herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides - all containing heavy metals.
How can I avoid heavy metals?
Of course, buying all organic produce isn't cheap - particularly now, as food prices worldwide seem to be on the rise.
The environmental working group (EWG) has released a list of common fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residues. There are 12 fruits and vegetables you should consider buying organic.
At the top of the list are strawberries. These are the most pesticide-contaminated foods. The EWG study found that over 99% of strawberries tested contained pesticides!
The other 11 are:
- Kale and collards
- Bell peppers & hot peppers
Don't raid your fridge and throw perfectly good produce out, though. If it's between eating non-organic vegetables and none at all, go for the non-organic veggies.
The risk of heavy metal build-up is outweighed by the many benefits you get from eating more fruits and vegetables. However, if you want to start improving the quality of the products you buy, consider picking up organic on those items - if you can afford it.
Are there heavy metals in protein powder?
One of the most contaminated food sources out there are, ironically, health supplements, such as protein powders.
A 2016 study by the clean label project found high levels of heavy metals and BPA (microplastics) in 53 leading brands.
They checked 134 of the top-selling protein powders. Shockingly, around 75% had measurable levels of lead.
Plant-based protein powders were twice as bad as whey and contained more mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. This is likely because the plant ingredients are sourced from low-quality, pesticide-ridden soil. Whey isn't off the hook, either though. As a by-product of the dairy industry, whey protein powder can cause indigestion, acne, and bloating.
How to avoid heavy metals in supplements:
Most supplements simply aren't third-party heavy metal tested - and this is a problem. It's essential to have an independent company checking the products you're buying so you can actually trust that you’re not getting contaminated products.
Since the beginning of Vivo Life, we've ensured that every single one of our products is third-party tested for safe levels of heavy metals (and other contaminants - including herbicides, pesticides, and PCBs).
We believe that you should have full transparency on what you're consuming. That's why we even include testing labels on our website!
Ensure your health supplements aren't harming you in the long-run. Stick with a brand you can trust.
Jaishankar M, Tseten T, Anbalagan N, Mathew BB, Beeregowda KN. Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals. Interdiscip Toxicol. 2014 Jun;7(2):60-72. doi: 10.2478/intox-2014-0009. Epub 2014 Nov 15. PMID: 26109881; PMCID: PMC4427717.