Worried About Mercury Exposure? Arsenic May Be Worse—How to Test Your Levels

Friday Sep 6 | BY |
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Could your health symptoms be caused by a toxic blood level of arsenic?
Read on to find out how to tell.

Do you fear heavy metal toxicity? If so, you have good reason to. Public awareness campaigns and even most doctors focus on mercury as the toxic nemesis of health.

Mercury sneaks into your body from amalgam dental fillings, fish, and in Thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines, immunoglobulin preparations, skin test antigens, antivenins, eye and nose drops, multidose injection vials, and tattoo inks. It takes up residence in body tissues including the brain and bones. High levels are associated with chronic illness including autoimmune diseases, fatigue syndromes, and neurological diseases.

But is that all there is to heavy metal poisoning?

Certainly mercury toxicity is a serious problem and even moderately high levels in the body create an obstacle for restoring health. I’ve tested patients for more than twenty years, however, and I rarely find toxic mercury levels. The most common heavy metal I’ve found? Arsenic.

Arsenic occurs in nature in rocks, volcanic ash, arsenic-containing minerals and ores, and dissolved in groundwater. It is also found in food, drinking water, farm soil, and in the air. In addition, many industrial practices use arsenic, including food production, so it’s crept into the environment and our food in ever greater amounts.

Old Lace and Infant Formula—Arsenic Poisoning in Brief

Arsenic is a serious public health risk. High levels can kill. And even moderate levels in the body play a role in chronic disease. At the molecular level, arsenic disrupts the body’s immune system, resulting in vulnerability to a wide range of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and liver disease. Like mercury, arsenic gets in the body a little at a time, entering mostly through the food supply.

Symptoms of arsenic exposure:

  • Thickening of skin
  • Discoloration of skin
  • Small “corns” or “warts” on the palms, soles, and torso
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased production of red and white blood cells
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Damage to blood vessels
  • Numbness in hands and feet
  • Partial paralysis
  • Blindness
  • Garlic odor of breath
  • Seizures

The Arsenic Diet

Arsenic is absorbed by all plants, but is particularly concentrated in leafy vegetables, rice, apple and grape juice, as well as in seafood. Inorganic arsenic is found in many synthetic products, poisons, and industrial processes. Organic arsenic get in the body primarily from fish, seaweed, and shellfish.

Arsenic is also used in poultry feed to improve flesh firmness and color. (Organically raised chickens are required to be arsenic free.) Recent concern has focused on high levels of arsenic found in fruits and vegetables, nutritional supplements, apple and grape juice, and in organic brown rice—all products, by the way, used in baby foods.

Arsenic in organic baby foods has gotten attention by Consumer Reports, Discover, and Wired, to name but a few. Researchers found arsenic just about everywhere, but finding high levels in American farmed rice is alarming. Short-term, low-level exposure is excreted from the body. But long-term exposure, especially when starting in infancy, can reduce response to vaccines, increase susceptibility to common respiratory infections like the flu, and ignite the inflammatory response, which is considered an underlying cause of nearly all disease.

At low doses, arsenic doesn’t overwhelm body systems. Exposure over time, however, causes insidious damage to cells. Like mercury, unless you are directly exposed to extremely high levels, which can kill you, arsenic toxicity is subtle, but definitely increases susceptibility to disease and makes all illnesses worse.

Conditions and complications linked to long-term arsenic toxicity:

  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Nervous system complications
  • Gastrointestinal conditions
  • Immune system disruption

Testing Your Arsenic Levels

Specialized lab testing is necessary to determine arsenic poisoning. Hair testing is an inexpensive place to start. In my clinical practice, if levels of arsenic or other toxic metals like mercury or cadmium are high in the hair, I want confirmation from a blood or urine test.

Due to the short half-life of arsenic in the blood, urine is the best way to detect acute exposure. Blood serum is also used for recent exposure. Though chronic exposure is accurately tested in hair or nails, there is little government oversight on hair testing labs, so always use a licensed clinical laboratory.

Remember that clinical symptoms may not be evident at the toxic threshold of 35 µg/L in a urine test. If you suspect low-level chronic arsenic poisoning, discuss your concern with your doctor, and request a µg/gCRT ratio, which is considered a more sensitive way of measuring arsenic than total concentration.

Ways to test for arsenic toxicity:
Chart 2

What level of arsenic is safe in your food and water? What level of arsenic is acceptable in your body? The answer is that no amount of arsenic in the food or water supply is safe, and the acceptable amount in your blood is zero.

Getting Rid of Arsenic

In my practice, I’ve been very successful in helping patients eliminate arsenic, but it takes time. Allow about one year to lower levels to the safe zone, and longer to get them close to zero.

Treatments for arsenic toxicity:

  • Bowel irrigation/colonics—help flush out traces of arsenic and prevent it from being absorbed into the gut.
  • Blood transfusions—for acute arsenic poisoning.
  • Intravenous chelation therapy with dimercaptosuccinic acid or dimercaprol to isolate arsenic from the blood proteins—IV chelation is very effective, but can be hard on the kidneys and liver, so it’s not for everyone.
  • Oral chelation therapy—is effective, but takes months of taking supplements, and they may have adverse effects.
  • Nutritional supplements with mild chelating effects—are useful as adjunctive therapy to oral or intravenous chelation, but not effective enough by themselves.

Oral chelation formulas containing EDTA (ethylene-diamine tetra-acetic acid), a weak synthetic amino acid, help remove arsenic and other heavy metals from the body. Chelating agents bind with heavy metals, and then eliminate them out of your body in urine and stool.

DMSA (dimercaptosuccinic acid) links up with a cysteine molecule in the body to form water-soluble chelates. This helps increase excretion of heavy metals in urine. DMSA is very effective, but is associated with possible side effects. Always use synthetic chelating agents under supervision of a qualified doctor.

Natural chelation helpers:

  • Hops (Humulus lupulus)
  • Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
  • Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata)
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
  • Whey protein isolate
  • Chlorella
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin C
  • Garlic

Lead, mercury, and arsenic serve no function in the human body. Even when present in moderate levels in human tissue, they can cause disease and prevent optimal health. In high levels, they cause serious disease and death.

Since heavy metals are pervasive in the modern environment and diet, a comprehensive wellness examination and optimal health evaluation should include a toxic metal test. The most cost effective test for long-term arsenic toxicity is a hair analysis. If it is positive, however, you may require a urine or blood test for confirmation.

There are effective methods for getting arsenic, and mercury, out of your body. Talk with you doctor about which one is best for you.

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Consumer Reports


Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

Visit Dr. Williams’ Website: https://drjewilliams.com/

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