By Mark Hayman, MD of The Cleveland Clinic for Functional Medicine
IF YOU ARE HEAVY, it could be making you sick and tired and age prematurely. And I don’t mean heavy with fat … I mean heavy with heavy metals–like mercury. Unfortunately, toxic mercury problems are common. Along with polar bears, beluga whales, ducks, otters, panthers, and all river fish as well as most large ocean fish, we humans are poisoning ourselves with mercury at ever increasing rates.
There’s no doubt about it, mercury is the most alarming, disease-causing source of environmental toxicity that I see daily in my practice. Many of patients have toxic levels of mercury–and they’re not alone. I personally suffered from mercury toxicity and chronic fatigue syndrome–which I cured myself from, in part by getting rid of the mercury in my body. So I know about this first hand.
I became toxic because I polluted myself by growing up on tuna fish sandwiches, eating sushi, living in Beijing, which heats all its homes with coal–the major source of environmental mercury load–and having a mouthful of amalgam (a.k.a. mercury) fillings.
All of these exposures, combined with genes that prevent me from effectively detoxifying metals in my body, led to a slow and significant poisoning of my cells and mitochondria. And the effects were obvious …
I felt weak, tired, and couldn’t think. I had muscle pain and twitches, insomnia, digestive problems, food allergies, depression, and anxiety. And it was only by discovering high levels of mercury in my hair and urine — and slowly detoxifying myself — that I was able to get better.
I have seen this over and over in my patients, too. From chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, to depression, anxiety, obesity, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, heart failure, and heart disease, the message is clear …
We are being poisoned!
Mercury is lipophilic, meaning that it concentrates in fatty tissues, especially in the brain, which is made mostly of fat.
This is such an important public health and personal issue for so many people I want to fully explain the extent of mercury issues and give you a comprehensive plan for reducing your exposure and healing from mercury toxicity. I’ll show you the science behind mercury toxicity, share some stories about my patients who have suffered, and talk about the way we need to deal with this major health problem.
First, I’d like to share with you what I learned at one of the most important international conferences on mercury yet to be held. It was called “The Impact of Mercury on Human Health and the Environment” and was presented at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
There, a unique international group of policymakers, environmental scientists, toxicologists, biochemists, journalists, academic physicians, practicing pediatricians, neurologists, and dentists gathered.
We were there to make sense of the environmental impact, toxicology, basic science, public policy and health implications of one the least studied and perhaps greatest potential threats to our long-term health–mercury. And I want to share some of what I learned at that conference with you.
Mercury Levels Are on the Rise
Barry Kohl, Ph.D. is an adjunct professor in the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane University. At the conference he provided a unique overview of the impact of industrialization on environmental mercury levels through a description of the levels of mercury in the ice core extracted from the pristine Freemont Glacier in Wyoming.
There were small peaks in mercury concentration in the ice core from the 1815 Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia, the 1850-84 gold rush in California where mercury was used for smelting, the eruption in 1883 of the Sumatran volcano Krakatau 10,000 miles away, and the more recent Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980.
Over all, the changes in environmental mercury levels have been dramatic. Over the past 100 years, there has been a 30-fold increase in mercury deposition, 70 percent of which is from human sources. In fact, there was an exponential peak in mercury occurring in the last 40 years due to major industrialization. Much of this mercury comes from coal-fired industrial plants and from chlor-alkali plants that use mercury in the process of making chlorine used in plastics, pesticides, PVC pipes, and more.
One note of hope was the reduction in industrial mercury emissions from 220 million pounds to 120 million pounds a year over the last 10 years. But that’s small consolation when we’re talking about a substance that is toxic in parts per million, not in millions of pounds.
And the more mercury we are exposed to, the more we are likely we are to be toxic.
Risk Increases with Dose
Harvey Clewell from the ENVIRON Health Sciences Institute, Ruston, Louisiana, reviewed the epidemiologic studies from the Seychelles and Faroe islands. He showed that your risk of toxicity increases with higher doses of mercury.
Now, there are different types of mercury. Nearly all human exposures to one type, methylmercury, come from fish.
In the Seychelle Islands, there seemed be little effect on kids from mercury; however their fish consumption was predominately from low-risk small reef fish that don’t contain much mercury.
On the other hand, in the Faroe Islands people eat whale blubber, which contains high levels of mercury — over three parts per million. There, high levels of mercury were found in umbilical cord blood and correlated with reduced performance in neurologic testing in 917 mother-infant pairs.
The health effects from methyl mercury upon infants and children depend on the dose. Severe symptoms start with exposure to doses of 100 mcg/kg/day, mild symptoms with more than 10 mcg/kg/day, and sub-clinical symptoms with less than 1 mcg/kg/day. These symptoms include late development in walking and talking and decreased performance on neurological tests.
Dr. Clewell also reviewed the limitations of various forms of testing for mercury.
Methylmercury (also called organic mercury) is found predominately in red blood cells, which is what doctors check when they do a blood test for mercury. But unless you’ve been eating fish with mercury recently, you won’t see your total body level of mercury.
Plus, mercury is lipophilic, meaning that it concentrates in fatty tissues, especially in the brain, which is made mostly of fat. That means that blood levels aren’t an accurate measurement of total body burden of mercury.
Inorganic mercury from dental fillings (amalgams) is found in plasma but is rapidly cleared and stored in your tissues. Inorganic mercury is also converted from methylmercury by the body and is the main form of mercury in brain, which can lead to dementia, autism, ADHD and more.
All of these are reasons you need to get comprehensive testing done to assess you total mercury load. I will review the test you need in a moment, but first I want to talk about how mercury gets in your body and what it does to your body and brain.
Health Effects of Mercury
We get mercury in our bodies from many different sources including mercury vapors in ambient air, ingesting it via drinking water, fish, dental amalgams, vaccines, occupational exposures, home exposures including fluorescent light bulbs, thermostats, batteries, red tattoo dye, skin-lightening creams, over-the-counter products such as contact lens fluid and neosynephrine, and more.
You absorb about 80 percent of inhaled mercury vapor and nearly 100 percent of the mercury in fish through your gut.
Once this mercury is in your body it is then primarily distributed in the kidneys and brain and can be readily transferred to the fetus via the placenta.
The only way it can get out of your body is via urine, feces, expired air, and breast milk. The major reason it is toxic to human biology is because mercury has the ability to bind to sulfur-containing molecules in the body (found in nearly every enzyme and in the mitochondria), as well as other chemical binding sites in the cells.
We’ve learned a lot about how this mercury effects us and our children from reported exposures to mercury over the last 100 years. These include epidemics such as the Minimata Bay exposures in Japan, acrodynia or pink disease in children from calomel (HgCl) used in teething powder, “mad hatter syndrome” or erethism, and methylmercury fungicide grain seed exposures in Iraq and Pakistan.