“Heavy metal.” For most of us, that term calls up a montage of mosh pits, feathered hair, leopard-spotted stratocasters, and that weird diehard salute — pinky and pointer-finger raised in a V, thumb clasped over two fingers drawn down like tarantula fangs. But, no, we’re not talking about the golden age of Metallica and Judas Priest. (And Flock of Seagulls. Remember Flock of Seagulls? Thanks for that, Gen X.) We refer to the other heavy metal — the kind that’s in the air, and that’s a pervasive, if often poorly understood, health concern in the US. Read on for a rundown of the problem and what you can do about it.
1. Back to Chem. Class …
Full disclosure: The last time the writer of this article took Chemistry was in 10th grade, and he barely escaped with a C+. So we don’t mean to haul you back into school, but allow us a quick overview of that dreaded pictograph, the Periodic Table of Elements.
The Periodic Table has 118 elements. (The scientific powers that be discovered four new elements just two years ago, actually.) Elements are the simplest chemical substances. They can’t be broken down any further with chemical reactions. Hydrogen is ol’ Number 1 in the Table because it’s the simplest element — one proton and one electron. Hydrogen is also the most abundant chemical substance in the universe. Hydrogen’s one of the good guys. Other elements in the Table aren’t so great, at least not for human contact. No less a body than the World Health Organization lists ten chemicals that pose health problems for us human beings:
- Air pollution
Granted, “air pollution” doesn’t have its own slot in the Periodic Table of Elements. But the WHO isn’t wrong in pointing out that man-made chemicals like smog and pesticides are as potentially bad for you as naturally-occurring ones like lead, arsenic, and cadmium. See, over 75% of all chemical elements on earth are metals. Chemists debate the exact classification of “metal,” but the umbrella definition includes these characteristics: gray-silver color, the ability to conduct heat and electricity, and high malleability — that is, they’re able to be shaped into different tools and instruments. (Such as copper wires or iron utensils.)
2. Introducing the Heavy Metals
So all the elements in that list above are “heavy metals.” In other words, they have a density or atomic weight at least five times greater than that of water. Your body needs some of the heavy metals to function. (Such as zinc, iron, and manganese.) Others are quite toxic. Overexposure to arsenic, mercury, and cadmium can poison you, but each in its own way. Arsenic causes seizures, headaches, severe confusion, and death. Symptoms of cadmium exposure include fatigue, loss of breath, more headaches, fluid buildup up in your lungs, and yellowing teeth. Tell-tale signs of lead poisoning are pallid skin, vomiting, and headaches. Terrifyingly, if children get lead in their system, they lose all their bouncy energy and seem clumsy and lethargic.
3. Where’s It All Coming From?
A lot of heavy metals are found in the earth’s crust, rather than the surface where we humans reside, but we’re exposed to them all the time because of A) pollution and B) they’re used in products we use everyday. Here are just a few examples:
- Tap Water
Rivers and tributaries in the US have become so contaminated that high levels of lead have been found in many public water sources. Flint, Michigan may be the epicenter of this crisis, but a report from Reuters found that nearly 3,000 areas throughout the US drank water that contained double the quality of lead than what was reported in Flint.
Beauty comes with a higher price than we may have even realized. Cosmetic products like blush, lipstick, eyeliner, moisturizers, and sunscreen have lead and aluminium in them. Dab your skin with a certain product, and you may be rubbing heavy metals into your pores.
- Pesticides & Herbicides
No surprise here. The root of the suffix “cide” is the Latin word for “killer” or “the act of killing.” So whether you’re killing bugs or weeds, you’re spraying your home and yard with liquid poison.
Flame retardants are built into a lot of mattresses, sofa cushions, and carpet padding to prevent houses from going up in flames. That’s good. What’s bad is that the space where you live becomes clogged up with more polyurethane foam — a material that’s petroleum-based that can make your skin irritated and cause breathing problems. Not ideal. But possibly better than sleeping on the floor your whole life.
Now that you know how lethal chemical exposure is, you’re probably wishing that heavy metal was just distorted guitars and banshee-wails into a microphone. No, you can’t avoid putting on lipstick, drinking from the tap, or napping on the couch forever. But how can you avoid heavy metal exposure? Here are some precautions:
- Whenever possible, don’t use herbicides and pesticides.
- Eat organic as much as you can. (Since pesticides often show up in our food.)
- Buy indoor plants. (Aloe vera, peace lilies, or golden pothos purify the air of harmful VOCs — volatile organic compounds — like benzene and formaldehyde.)
And, finally, the big one: Keep on top of your health. That means talking to your doctor about exposure to heavy metals, and going through a service like Am Alt Labs, which runs a mineral analysis on your hair to determine how much toxicity your body has absorbed. That way, you’ll be aware of any health problems you might have, which can help you determine what in your environment is triggering your symptoms. Toxicity may be in the air, it’s true. But at least Flock of Seagulls isn’t flying up there with it.