The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Mark Hyman, MD Headshot

Why Lead Poisoning May Be Causing Your Health Problems

Posted: Updated:

We are too heavy, and I don't mean overweight. We're heavy with metals, not fat. Nearly 40 percent of us have toxic levels of lead in our bodies. And we don't even know it. But that doesn't mean we don't have symptoms...

You may have headaches, insomnia, irritability, a low sex drive or tremors. You may have mood problems, nausea, depression, memory difficulties, trouble concentrating, poor coordination or even constipation. Yet most of us attribute these symptoms to other problems. We don't recognize that they may be caused by lead poisoning.

I recently went to a medical conference on heavy metals and health. Although I have been treating toxicity from heavy metals for more than a decade (including in myself), I was surprised to hear about research that has been completely ignored by the media.

A study published in 2006 in the conservative medical journal Circulation, for example, should have been on the front page of the New York Times. Today I will tell you why the study was so important, and why you probably won't hear about it from your doctor. Then I will give you six tips to help get the lead out.

Studies Show Any Lead in Your Body May be Unsafe

In the study I mentioned above, researchers measured the blood lead levels of 13,946 adults who were part of the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They were recruited from 1988 to 1994 and were then followed up on for up to 12 years. The goal of the study was to track what diseases people developed and why they died. (i)

Now, it's important to remember that since lead was removed from gasoline and house paint several decades ago, the average person's blood lead level has dropped dramatically. But our levels of lead are still a great deal higher than those of people who lived before the industrial age. That's because we continue to be exposed to lead in our soil and water, as well as from our own bones, where it is stored once it's introduced into our system.

Fifty years ago, the average blood levels of lead were about 40 micrograms/deciliter. The level considered "safe" by the government has continued to fall and is now considered less than 10 micrograms/deciliter. But this new study and others like it question the idea that ANY level of this toxic metal is safe.

In this study, researchers found that a blood level of lead over two micrograms/deciliter (that's two, not 10 or 40) caused dramatic increases in heart attacks, strokes and death. In fact, after controlling for all other risk factors, including cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and inflammation, the researchers found that the risk of death from all causes in people with a lead level that high increased by 25 percent. Deaths from heart disease increased by 55 percent, risk of heart attacks increased by 151 percent and risk of stroke increased by 89 percent.

What's even more remarkable is that nearly 40 percent of all Americans are estimated to have blood levels of lead high enough to cause these problems. This is potentially a greater risk for heart disease than cholesterol! But this study is not the first indication we have of problems with lead.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that high blood pressure in postmenopausal women is strongly correlated to blood lead levels. This is because bones break down faster during menopause, releasing stored lead and injuring blood vessels, which leads to high blood pressure.(ii)

High lead may also be responsible for kidney failure as well. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that using chelation therapy with EDTA to reduce lead levels in patients with kidney failure could prevent further loss of kidney function, save billions in healthcare costs and eliminate the need for dialysis in millions of people. (iii)

Wow! Take a moment to digest that. Chelation therapy saves lives and billions of dollars. But your doctor probably isn't offering this as standard treatment, because, as I have said many times, doctors don't learn two of the most important things in medical school: How to help people improve their nutrition and how to deal with environmental toxins.

Lead is not only linked to heart disease, high blood pressure and kidney failure, it is also connected to the epidemic of children with ADHD, developmental and learning problems, and autism. Even though the "safe" blood levels of lead has been set as 10 micrograms/deciliter, recent studies show that the greatest drop-off in IQ scores in children occurs in those who have lead levels between just one and 10 micrograms/deciliter.(iv) This is particularly troubling, because more than 10 percent of poor and inner city children have lead exposure levels higher than 10 micrograms/deciliter!

I recently treated a young boy with extremely high lead levels who had Asperger's syndrome, severe ADHD and violent behavior. He likely got the lead from his mother, who had very low vitamin D levels and had developed osteoporosis, which released a lot of lead from her bones during pregnancy. This lead got into the boy's body in the womb across his mother's placenta. Thankfully, we got rid of his lead over time through chelation and nutritional support. Doing so dramatically improved his attention, behavior and social skills.

This young boy is, unfortunately, not alone. We live in a sea of heavy metals. Lead is still found in our soil and water. In areas with a history of industrial pollution, people track lead into their homes from contaminated soil. The sad result is that regular house dust often contains 17 times the level of lead it once did. In Washington, DC, the water was so contaminated with lead recently that the government had to provide free water filters for everyone in the city. Up to 20 percent of the city's tap water may be contaminated.

So what can you do about this?

SIx Tips to Help You Get the Lead Out

Luckily there are steps you can take to help you heal from lead poisoning if you have been exposed. Try the following:

1. Find out if you are lead-toxic. The easiest test is a simple blood lead test. Be sure the lab can measure VERY low levels of lead accurately. Anything higher than two micrograms/deciliter is toxic and should be treated. Unfortunately, the blood test only checks for current or ongoing exposures, so you must also take a heavy metal challenge test with DMSA, EDTA or DMPS, which can be administered by a doctor trained in heavy metal detoxification. (See www.functionalmedicine.org or www.acam.org to find a qualified doctor.) Consider undergoing chelation therapy if your lead levels are high.

2. Reduce your exposures by having a "no shoes in the house" policy. A great deal of lead can be tracked into your house in the dust on the soles of shoes. Leaving your shoes at the door helps reduce the amount of contamination in your home.

3. Test your water for heavy metals. There are a number of home test kits available online. If you prefer to have a professional test your water, call your city water provider or look for labs in your area that will perform this kind of test.

4. Buy a carbon or reverse osmosis water filter for your drinking water. These filters remove lead and other toxic substances like PCBs. They are my favorite kind of filter and the type I use in my home.

5. Take 1,000 milligrams of buffered ascorbic acid (vitamin C) a day. This helps remove lead from the body.

6. Take 2,000 to 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day to prevent your bones from releasing lead into your bloodstream.

Even though many of us have toxic levels of lead in our bodies, there is a lot we can do to prevent it and treat it. Doing so is an essential step to healing your body and achieving lifelong vibrant health.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

Do you suffer from any of the symptoms of lead toxicity?

Have you been tested for lead poisoning? Do you plan to be?

Which of the other steps have you tried?

Please let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

References

(i) Menke, A., Muntner, .P, Batuman, V., et al. (2006). Blood lead below 0.48 micromol/L (10 microg/dL) and mortality among US adults. Circulation. 114(13):1388-94.

(ii) Nash, D., Magder, L., Lustberg, M., et al. (2003). Blood lead, blood pressure, and hypertension in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. JAMA. 289(12):1523-32.

(iii) Lin, J.L., Lin-Tan, D.T., Hsu, K.H., and C.C. Yu. (2003) Environmental lead exposure and progression of chronic renal diseases in patients without diabetes. New England Journal of Medicine. 348(4):277-86

(iv) Canfield, R.L., Henderson, C.R. Jr., Cory-Slechta, D.A., et al. (2003). Intellectual impairment in children with blood lead concentrations below 10 microg per deciliter. New England Journal of Medicine. 348(16):1517-26.

Mark Hyman, M.D. practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.

From Our Partners