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“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:

  • Lead
  • Dioxin
  • Arsenic
  • Fluoride
  • Mercury
  • Benzene
  • Asbestos
  • Cadmium
  • Pesticides
  • 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.


  • Cosmetics


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.


  • Furniture


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:

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.

This is a tale of metals and minerals. In the workaday world, we use those two terms so freely that it’s easy to forget not only their scientific definition, but also how they affect our health. We don’t mean to trigger memories of high school chem or biology, when you had to dissect a baby pig that was splayed on an operating board and reeking of formaldehyde. So this tale will be a quick review of metals and minerals — what they are, and how your body could be absorbing their chemical composition. And now for our tale …

1. Metals



Remember the Periodic Table of Elements? That thing seemed about as comprehensible as hieroglyphics back when we were in school, but it turns out that it served a purpose. Scientists have identified 118 elements, chemical substances that cannot be broken down any further. If you look at the Table, the elements in it can be separated into three broad categories:


  • Metals


A hard-and-fast definition of metal is an element that establishes metallic bonds. Yeah, it sounds like all we’ve said there is that metals are metals. Over 75% of chemical elements on Earth are metals. They’re a varied lot, and scientists don’t always agree on the mettle of metals. But some of the general characteristics include a gray-silver shininess, being conductors of heat and electricity, and substances that are malleable — soft enough to be shaped into different forms (without breaking). For eons, humans have welded and smelted metals like iron and copper into tools and trinkets. Ancient works of gilding, casting, engraving, embossing, and enamelling fill museums because they form some of the basis of human civilization. All made possible thanks to metal.


  • Nonmetals


What’s a nonmetal? Take those characteristics of metals and flip them. In other words:

nonshiny (lusterless), nonmalleable (brittle), nonconductor (nonconductor?). Most elements are metals, but nonmetals are some of the most important chemical substances in the universe — carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, among others, including the Noble Gases. (An aloof bunch, those.)


  • Metalloids


Neither metal nor nonmetal the metalloids be, clumped together in a zigzagging line on the right side of the Periodic Table. Boron, silicon, tellurium, and germanium are all metalloids, which exhibit characteristics both of metals and nonmetals. They do tend to be semiconductors, which is one reason microchips have silicon in them.

2. Minerals



If elements are the simplest chemical substances, and metals are specific elements, minerals are basically chemical compounds. Mineralogy is complex, so here are a few more points that make up a broader definition of minerals:

  1. Stable at room temp.
  2. Formed by an inorganic natural process. (That is, it came about without the secretions or metabolites of plants or animals.)
  3. Represented with a chemical formula. (Some of these are quite complicated. Just look at Aurichalcite, which is Zinc + Copper. The chemical formula? (Zn,Cu)5(CO3)2(OH)6. Talc is MgSi4O10(OH)2. See? Complicated.)

Minerals can be classified into species, and they have a crystal shape and a homogeneous structure. Geologists have identified more than 4,000 minerals. Talc, topaz, quartz, gypsum, turquoise, and diamonds are all minerals. And while we’re knocking out definitions, let’s throw rocks in the mix. Two or more minerals make a rock. Roughly 200 minerals make up the bulk of most of the rocks on the planet. The chief minerals in rocks are clay, quartz, calcite, and fieldspar. (Though many other minerals are important in the study of rocks, too.)


3. Chapter the Last


Earth itself is a tale of metals and minerals. The metals iron and nickel comprise the core of the earth. The mantle is chiefly oxygen, calcium, more iron, and aluminium. The surface, upon which we humans live, is mostly oxygen and nitrogen, but minerals can be found through the earth’s surface. One more term you should know before you end this article: “Heavy metal.” These are metallic elements that, at low concentrations, are toxic to humans. You don’t need to be a biochemist to realize that the heavy metals lead (Pb), arsenic (As), and mercury (Hg) — and the mineral asbestos — can be lethal if people are exposed to them. Since more of these heavy metals are creeping into our food, water, and even the everyday retail we buy, it’s important to get yourself tested to see if you’ve absorbed any dangerous chemicals into your system. Am Alt Labs provides that test with a simple method — hair analysis.

All we need from you is a strand of hair to determine the chemical composition in your body. After that, we can issue you a diagnosis. Our hope is that that diagnosis comes back as “No chemicals. You’re good.” But if the results register high toxicity, don’t panic. We’ll talk you through the medical implications and advise you of how we recommend you follow a chemical detox. At the end of the detox, you’ll have more energy, you’ll sleep more deeply, and your mental clarity will be sharper, so that this tale of metals and minerals has a happy ending.