“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
2. Introducing the Heavy MetalsSo 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
- Pesticides & Herbicides
- 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.)