It’s not just Flint
Every day I read more news about toxins in our environment, and the growing body of research that makes the connection between these (largely unregulated) chemicals and a variety of insidious health conditions. I feel like Americans generally don’t understand the seriousness of the situation, and how much corporations affect our environment and ultimately our health. I do have some hope that the press about Flint Michigan will help, but that is far from the worst of it.
If we just look at lead as one well-known contaminant, we begin to see how very difficult the situation is. The reality is that – in spite of the fact that the US government collects data on lead poisoning – many states don’t report lead levels in water at all:
Given the publicity related to the lead poisoning in Flint, maybe consumers will start to pay more attention and start to demand this information. But, according to the comments in this post, there are 160K water systems in the US, regulated by a wide variety of local agencies. And the most recent version of the Safe Drinking Water Act has a loophole that avoids any EPA accountability for issues in drinking water that result from fracking.
In the meantime, you may recall the movie called Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts, which came out in 2000. The movie tells the story of how Erin and her husband fought and won a huge lawsuit regarding the presence of Chromium-6 in the water of a local community. Apparently it causes cancer even at very low levels of contamination, and it is now in the drinking water water of an estimated 200 million Americans in all fifty states. But corporations and our own government agencies resist meaningful regulation because changing work practices (and of course the clean-up) are onerous and expensive. If that sounds discouraging, keep in mind that today, the legislation that does exist regarding C-6 is the “only enforceable drinking water standard at either the state or federal level”. That just goes to show you how far we have to go with lead, which is more widely recognized as an issue of late. But it’s only the latest in a long line of unregulated industrial chemicals taking a toll on our health. Erin Brockovich continues her efforts to fight for the safety of Americans against these toxic substances. If you’re interested in learning more, you can follow the newsfeed on her website or on Facebook.
Part of the reason that I’ve been so interested in these issues is that in the summer of 2015 (six months after my Hashimoto’s Disease diagnosis) I had received lab test results from Doctor’s Data that revealed I had lead and mercury poisoning:
As you can imagine, I was pretty panic-stricken about it. In hindsight, it seems likely that the mercury was from amalgam fillings that were not properly removed. I had them removed shortly after my second son was born, which was also the earliest onset of my Hashi’s symptoms.
Humans do store lead in our bones, and for women, those reserves begins to release as women approach menopause. My my doctor was very concerned about my levels being so high before the onset of menopause, so she recommended a number of concurrent treatments, including regular DMSA (a chelation agent) and a product called Zeolite (which I would not recommend, more on that in a minute). I am now also taking something called PectaClear, which is a fruit pectin that apparently helps to absorb and remove heavy metals from the digestive system. But as I started chelating, my lead levels continued to rise, along with those of other chemicals:
One hypothesis from my doctor was that the test results were skewed because she had given me more chelation agent before the second test (due to weight gain). That seemed like a pretty lame explanation and, frankly, unconvincing. I was also losing my hair in fistfuls, likely due to the fact that chelation was also drawing the iron out of my system. I was exhausted and balding – not a good place. So my whole family and I started researching like crazy. We learned the following things along the way:
- We had our house water tested by Schneider Laboratories and it was fine. We did learn that drinking water can be contaminated at any time, though, so that wasn’t particularly reassuring.
- Many ceramic pans have lead in them. Our newest pans were, in fact, ceramic. We had no way of verifying whether they had lead in them or not, so out they went. If you want to cook with ceramic (it’s a great way to avoid the carcinogenic toxins in non-stick pans), I would recommend the Greenpan line by Sur La Table, which claims to be free of lead and other toxins.
- I was taking a small mountain of daily vitamins and supplements at the time of my testing (I still am!), and I learned through my research how little regulation of supplements exists in the United States. It’s horrifying, actually. You may have seen news articles in the past year about recalls of vitamins from Walmart, Target, and many other companies. More recently, there have been recalls of tumeric and other spices which have unacceptable levels of lead in them. You can follow the latest recalls on the FDA website – Recalls of Foods & Dietary Supplements. What I learned from this Chemistry Central Journal article about heavy metals and supplements is that some supplements such as Magnesium and Manganese occur in”natural geochemical association with essential metals” such as lead. So unless you buy your supplements from suppliers that truly check lead levels, these supplements may further raise your toxic load. A Functional Medicine Practitioner (FMP) can recommend suitable brands; most of what I am prescribed comes from Pure Encapsulations or Douglas Labs.
- In an effort to avoid fluoride (which has also been associated with Hashis), I tried a number of different alternative toothpastes. Removing the fluoride really helped with my sensitive gum tissue and teeth. Of all the brands I tried, the two that I liked the most were called Desert Essence Natural Tea Tree Oil and Neem Toothpaste and Redmond Earthpaste. But if you read the fine print on the Redmond Earthpaste, it says that is contains trace amounts of lead – enough so that they are required by law to document it on the packaging. So out went the new toothpaste.
- One of the many suggestions I came across on patient discussion boards was to use Himalayan salt, because it supposedly has a lot of essential elements in it, including Magnesium. However, around this time, I read an article that suggested that Himalayan salt could cause lead poisoning. Later, a rebuttal from the CEO of Original Himalayan Crystal Salt® appeared on the same site. He claims their product offers many important trace minerals, and that they do thorough testing. But of course (even if their claims prove true) most consumers can’t distinguish their brands from the many others on the market. So out went our Himalayan salt as well.
- The icing on the cake for me was learning that Zeolite (which was recommended as a gentle chelation agent by my FMP), has been shown to have extremely high levels of lead in it. Now, the author of the website who posted the study appears certifiably nuts. But he does run a high-end laboratory. And, timing-wise, the significant jump in my lead levels appears to be correlated with my use of zeolite. Needless to say, I stopped using it immediately. But all of this gets back once again to the lack of regulation in the U.S. around dietary supplements, and the hazards of being a guinea pig on the bleeding edge of functional medicine.
After making all of these changes, my doctor and agreed to wait six months before testing heavy metals again. I was so, so crazy stressed about this topic that I knew I had to put my energy elsewhere for awhile. During that time, my sister sent me a very interesting paper from the Canadian Medical Association Journal entitled Lead and mercury exposures: interpretation and action, which I’ve attached as a PDF for you here. My biggest takeaways after reading this article were:
- Most physicians who are willing to engage on this topic have no idea what they are doing in testing for metals, interpreting the results, or treating patients appropriately.
- There are safety tests that can be conducted, but most labs do not use the most robust means possible – only the minimum that is required by law. The manufacturers whose supplements I was taking had nothing posted on their websites, and were unwilling to explain their safety testing procedures in writing to me. I had to call each one and ask them to explain their testing methods. I did not call Pure Encapsulations or Douglas Labs, but of the others I called, I did not find one that met the testing standards and safety levels recommended by the CMAJ article linked above.
- Another huge realization was that I had only ever done a heavy metals test following provocation with a chelation agent. I had no baseline measurement – a huge mistake. I was now 18 months into treatment without knowing where I had started. Needless to say I was pissed as hell about that.
When I went back to see my doctor, I asked a lot of questions, but didn’t get many satisfactory replies. I did, however, get a new heavy metals test without a chelation agent, and I received these results:
How about that? I have no idea where the elevated Barium levels came from, in spite of reading up on it on the NIH website. One of the main reasons people get Barium poisoning is from peanut butter, which I don’t eat. But note how different the lead and and mercury levels are. Sadly, without a baseline, it’s hard to really know what this means. Either my earlier levels were related to one of the many things I changed (pans, supplements, salt, toothpaste, zeolite). Or it was never that high to begin with, and the chelation agent was simply drawing out what is being stored in bones, fat tissue, or elsewhere.
What my doctor was able to tell me is that my current levels are likely as a result to past exposure (e.g. fillings, lead-based paint). Knowing that, I am still attempting detox, but at a more relaxed pace. I hope that this blog post will help raise your awareness of the importance of environmental regulations, and help you make better decisions as a consumer about what you buy for your kitchen, your personal hygiene, and more.
And now – after 18 months of tremendous anxiety on this topic – I know I am no longer dying of heavy metal poisoning, so I am actively turning my attention to other aspects of my health. More on that in a subsequent post, hopefully before Thyroid Awareness Month is over!