Mercury 25 August 2009
Mercury toxicity is an unrecognised pandemic. Mercury is a heavy metal which is pervasive throughout air, food and water. Annual worldwide emissions are estimated at 2200 tonnes. One third of emissions are from natural sources such as volcanoes and 25% comes from combustion of fossil fuels, particularly coal. Mercury is used in gold mining to separate gold from ore and then is burnt off to recover the gold. Medical waste incineration is also responsible for a large proportion. Human exposure comes from dental amalgams, consumption of fish, kelp and other seaweeds, thimerasol used in vaccines, fungicides and pesticides, consumption of grains treated with mercury containing fungicides, car exhaust, processed foods, mascara, calamine lotion, some psoriasis medications, floor waxes and wood preservatives. Mercury containing thimerasol has been removed from all vaccines except the influenza vaccine. Human activities may have doubled or tripled the amount of mercury in the environment in the last 150 years.
Attention was focused on mercury when it was discovered that thousands of people had been poisoned by industrial dumping or mercury waste into Minamata Bay in Japan from 1932 until 1968. Over 5000 people developed mercury toxicity and 456 eventually died. Children were born with deformities and mental retardation. In 1971 50,000 people in Iraq were poisoned after they ate bread contaminated with mercury and 5000 died. In the US an additional one kiloton of mercury is derived from trans-Atlantic dust storms that contain enough mercury to qualify as ‘mine able ore’ if only the dust could be trapped. Calculations have suggested that there are about a quadrillion toxic doses of mercury released itno the environment each year.
Environmental studies have warned that emissions of mercury from coal-fired power plants pose a serious health risk. American studies have shown at least 8% of American women of childbearing age have blood levels of mercury that are a risk to a foetus. That percentage is falsely low because mercury estimates were done from blood and hair samples. Blood and hair tests are not accurate in assessing the body burden of mercury. Mercury quickly leaves blood and is deposited in tissues. Blood tests can be useful in looking for clues to the presence of mercury in tissues as long as the right tests are requested and they are interpreted correctly. If you don’t ask the right questions you won’t get the right answers. Many people do not excrete mercury into their hair and hair analysis only mainly detects methyl mercury. Studies have shown that 90% of the mercury in our bodies is elemental mercury, not methyl mercury. The only reliable way to determine mercury levels is to check values in urine after administration of a chemical which binds tissue mercury and allows it to be excreted (known as a chelating agent). Levels greater than 5ug/l (5 millionths of one gram) have been shown to be associated with human toxicity.
Many studies that have been done which have found no association between mercury and disease have been done with blood tests for mercury. Imagine a leaky bath tap dripping into a bath. The leaky tap represents the slow leak of mercury and the bath the tissues of the body. Heavy metals like mercury and lead are not readily excreted by the body so now the bath has a plug in it. Eventually the bath is full. If the plumber is called and only looks at the tap, a major problem is not apparent. Only if the plumber checks the bath is the magnitude of the problem recognised. Looking for mercury toxicity by just doing a blood test is like just looking at the tap.
So how much mercury does it take to start getting problems? For elemental mercury, a No Observed Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) has not been found. That means that some people react adversely to the smallest amount of mercury that can be measured at the moment. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that there is no safe level of mercury in humans that does not kill cells or harm body processes. A paper in Nature in 1988 described mercury as the most toxic of the toxic minerals.
The WHO has found that the highest mercury exposure to humans comes from dental amalgam fillings. These fillings contain 50% mercury, 35% silver and 15% tin, copper and zinc. The WHO estimates the daily absorption of mercury in individuals with 5 or more fillings is 23 µg per day. Autopsy studies have shown higher mercury levels in the brain and kidneys of people with aged amalgams than in people with no mercury fillings. Amalgam fillings have been banned in Germany, Austria and Sweden. In 1999 the California Dental Board termed mercury amalgams “hazardous”. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US set the safety limit or mercury in the air at 50 ug per square meter of air. Measurements of the air in the mouths of people with multiple amalgam fillings have shown levels up to 150ug. To see the true extent of the danger, click on this link and watch the “Smoking Teeth” video from the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology- Smoking Teeth.
Mercury from coal and industrial waste has filled the oceans and it now contaminates almost all fish. Mercury in fish is subject to biomagnification…the larger the fish (the higher up the food chain), the higher the mercury content. The large predatory fish such as tuna, shark and swordfish can contain 100 times more mercury than the smaller fish. Tuna is now so unhealthy that pregnant mothers are warned not to eat it. Testing in the United States has shown there are 600,000 newborn children with elevated mercury levels on blood testing each year. The level of mercury in the children is proportional to the number of amalgams the mother has. The neurological and psychological consequences of this are yet to be realised.
Until recently, vaccines containing the mercury containing preservative thimerasol have also been a significant source of mercury exposure. The USA National Science Foundations Institute of Medicine recently stated that children vaccinated with thimerasol (ethyl-mercury) containing vaccines had a 2700% greater chance of developing autism than those vaccinated with vaccines not containing mercury.
Mercury is an incredibly toxic agent. One mercury filling placed in a large lake would make all the fish in it unsafe for consumption and the water unsafe for swimming. It has multiple toxic mechanisms of action:
- interferes with the function of mitochondrial enzymes and disrupts mitochondrial energy generation
- suppresses protein synthesis
- produces free radicals
- attaches to the surface of cells and subsequently the immune system recognises them as foreign and attacks them (autoimmune disease). It is particularly toxic to the nervous system, the thyroid gland, the adrenal gland, the immune system, the cardiovascular system, kidneys and the gut.
- damages nerves. If you are interested in the science of how mercury causes neurodegeneration, there is a fascinating 3 minute video clip available from the University of Calgary. To see the video, click on Mercury Video
- increases brain neurofibrillary tangles (same as the ones that occur in Alzheimer’s disease)
- reduces ATP by depleting glutathione and ascorbate
Symptoms of mercury poisoning can include decreased vision and hearing, colour vision disturbance, metallic taste in the mouth, bad breath, fatigue, anorexia, allergies, dermatitis, numbness and paresthesiaes, insomnia, headaches, migraines, tinnitus, vertigo, palpitations, menstrual disturbances, periodontal disease, irritability, tremors, fasciculations, memory loss, poor concentration, muscle pain/weakness and incoordination. The term “mad as a hatter” came from hatters poisoning themselves with mercury while shaping hats.
Consequences include psychosis, depression, behavioral disorders, autoimmune disorders (such as arthritis, lupus and scleroderma), fibromyalgia, hormonal disruption, hypothyroidism, adrenal fatigue, infertility, miscarriages, low sperm count, leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cardiomyopathy and kidney failure. Hormonal disorders are so prevalent because the pituitary gland (the central controller of all hormone function) lies in the brain only 2 cm from the mercury amalgams.
Mercury kills off the friendly bacteria in the gut which are required to prevent other gut infections and help with digestion of proteins and carbohydrates. This can cause bad breath, bloating, gas and food allergies. Mercury can also affect the nerves of the intestinal system causing constipation.
Mercury released from the mercury amalgams of pregnant women crosses the placenta and can cause brain damage in the foetus which can manifest later as low IQ and learning and behavioural problems. It decreases transport of oxygen and essential nutrients to the foetus. The foetal pituitary gland (which affects the development of the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems) concentrates mercury. Studies have also shown that high mercury levels in infants lowers glutathione levels- one of the brains main protective antioxidant molecules. This has been likened to removing all the fire extinguishers from a house and then setting it on fire.
The level of mercury in the breast milk of the mother and the tissues of foetuses and infants is directly proportional to the number of amalgams the mother has. These children therefore get a double dose of mercury- one from the mothers blood during development and then from her milk after birth. Although there is evidence that some children are more susceptible than others, even the American Dental Association which until recently championed amalgam fillings has now issued a warning to its members not to place amalgam fillings in pregnant women.
At the other end of the scale, there is also evidence that mercury is certainly one of the toxins behind Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Because mercury is fat soluble, it accumulates in the brain which is 60% fat. Studies have shown that people with AD have blood mercury levels twice as high as those who didn’t have the disease. AD patients have also been shown to have much lower levels of selenium and zinc which protect the brain against mercury.
Data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency has shown a significant increase in the rates of special education students and autism in direct proportion to the amount of environmentally released mercury. On average, for each 1000 pounds of environmentally released mercury, there was a 43% increase in the rate of special education services and a 61% increase in the rate of autism.
A study in the February 1995 edition of the journal Circulation found that increasing levels of mercury increased the risk of a heart attack, probably by oxidising LDL. This was confirmed by a study in the November 2002 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine that found mercury levels correlated directly with the risk of myocardial infarction. A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published in 1999 found a 22000 fold increase in myocardial levels of mercury and a several thousand fold increase in other heavy metals in patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy. None of them had any obvious exposure to any of the metals. A study in the November 2000 edition of Circulation found that men with hair mercury levels in the top 25% had the same risk of heart disease as smokers.
According to observations made by famous medical researcher, Dr Yoshiaki Omura (Journal of Natural Medicine June 1988), all cancer cells have mercury in them. He feels that one of the primary reasons cancer is recurrent is because residual mercury provides a pathological environment even after surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Mercury in the tissues suppresses the immune system. This allows the growth of fungi and bacteria which then produce exotoxins further damaging and acidifying the body.
The toxicity of mercury is worse in the presence of lead. In the United States, lead, arsenic and mercury are the three most frequently found environmental toxic substances according to the Agency for Toxic Substances. I have yet to find any Australian figures. A study in the Archives of Internal Pharmacodynamics in 1986 found that mercury and lead even in low levels affect the vascular system and a study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 showed that low levels of mercury increase the risk of heart attacks.
The risk of developing mercury toxicity is increased by having multiple sources of mercury exposure, exposure to other heavy metals or environmental toxins, vitamin A/C/E deficiencies, zinc/selenium/glutathione/sulphur deficiencies, excessive acidity, genetic predisposition and other chronic medical conditions.
What about dentists? Well dentists and dental personnel who place mercury amalgams have been shown to have high levels of mercury. They have also been shown to experience high levels of neurological, memory, mood and behavioural problems. Dentists have one of the highest incidences of Alzheimer’s disease. Female dentists and dental technicians working with mercury have reduced fertility. Dentists have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. And the dental associations? Well the American Dental Association (ADA) has moved from saying that mercury amalgams are safe to saying they have no position on the subject. Their lawyers stated “the ADA owes no legal duty to protect the public from allegedly dangerous products used by dentists. The ADA did not manufacture, design, supply or install the mercury containing amalgams. The ADA’s only alleged involvement in the product was to provide information regarding its use. Dissemination of information relating to the practice of dentistry does not create a duty of care to protect the public from potential injury.”
The joint Guidelines for Toxic Metals prepared by the American Board of Clinical Metal Toxicology, the American Association of Environmental Medicine and the International College of Integrative Medicine state that “ANY test showing heavy metals deserves to be treated, if only for preventative purposes. Ideal levels of heavy metals in human tissue are zero if we are to prevent the development of chronic illness. Arbitrary threshold values to define ‘toxic’ levels proposed by conventional occupational medicine are not useful and may be harmful if the patient is left untreated.”
If you suspect you have mercury toxicity you should:
- Consult a doctor with an interest in heavy metal toxicity to confirm the diagnosis and to maximise your health before the amalgams are removed. Confirming the diagnosis may require several strategies because it is well recognised that blood levels of heavy metals are not representative of tissue levels and frequently fail to identify significantly toxic tissue levels i.e levels that are causing tissue damage. Blood tests are a measure of recent or ongoing exposure. 30 days after acute exposure there is little evidence of any remaining toxic metal in the serum as it has been deposited in other tissues. Random urine tests show only what is being detoxified by the kidneys so are a poor test because heavy metals are predominantly stored in tissues rather than excreted. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, then the health of organs involved in mercury detoxification (liver, lungs, kidneys, bowel and skin) must be optimised.
- Have your mercury amalgams removed by a dentist familiar with the precautions required (in fact you should have them out even if you don’t think you are mercury toxic).
- Confirm mercury toxicity by a 24 hour urine collection for mercury after administration of a chelating agent.
- See a doctor experienced in chronic heavy metal toxicity to devise a programme to remove the mercury. That might include minimising ongoing exposure, optimising protein intake, consumption of foods that assist in the elimination of mercury, supplementing with natural chelators such as vitamin C, selenium, ginger (fresh ginger tea is good), broccoli, eggs, garlic, onions and glutathione, and the administration of a chelating agent (oral or intravenous). Increasing dietary fiber is important to facilitate bile flow and avoid constipation- so toxic metals can be excreted in the faeces.
- Take an oral chelating agent long term to avoid any further mercury accumulation. Unless you live in a bubble, avoiding future exposure completely is impossible. Research has shown that from coal combustion and medical waste alone, an individual will be exposed to over 1.5 million mcg of mercury in a lifetime. A few micrograms are enough to cause disease. Supplementing with a chelating agent is safe and also protective against other heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. For more information, see Lead, Arsenic and Cadmium.