Losing your shine?

It sounds heavy – and no, we don’t mean the likes of Metallica, but heavy metal toxicity is threatening our health. By Helen Renshaw.

Losing your shine?

Heavy metal toxicity (or poisoning by substances that enter the body through pollution or contaminated food) is one of the murkiest issues threatening our health, not least because the experts don’t agree on the seriousness of the problem.

Some, like natural medicine practitioner and World Health Organisation researcher Dr George Georgiou, believe toxic heavy metals in food are behind an increased risk of conditions as diverse as cancer and infertility.

Other researchers claim such fears are exaggerated. A recent study published by the Food Standards Agency found that levels of toxic metals found in a sample of foods did not present significant risks.

Confused? We investigate the threat posed by heavy metals in food…

What are heavy metals?

Heavy metals are natural components of the Earth’s crust that cannot be degraded or destroyed. Examples include mercury, cadmium, arsenic, thallium and lead. As trace elements, some metals (such as zinc) are essential to health in extremely low concentrations, while others have no nutritional value. All, however, can lead to poisoning at higher concentrations. They are dangerous because they bioaccumulate – that is, build up in the body faster than they can be broken down and excreted.

How do heavy metals get into our food?

Either naturally or as a result of human activities. They can contaminate food through pollution, or through pesticides, growth promoters fed to livestock or additives that prolong shelf life.

Which foods are most susceptible?

Fish is one of the worst culprits, with high levels of mercury regularly found in species at the top of the food chain. Chicken is also a risk, as it is sometimes given arsenic as a growth promoter. Fruit, vegetables and cereal products that have been sprayed with certain pesticides or grown near busy roads are also at risk.

How can they damage us?

The World Health Organisation says environmental pollution is the underlying cause of 80 per cent of all chronic degenerative diseases, which is why legal limits are placed on the amounts that can occur in food. Acute toxicity – the effect of one-off exposure – can prove fatal but is rare, while chronic toxicity – repeated exposure at a lower level – can be caused by long-term accumulation of heavy metals in the body. Studies have linked chronic contamination to conditions such as cancer, infertility, Alzheimer’s, strokes, heart attacks, autism and depression.

So do we need to worry?

Yes, say natural health practitioners, including Dr Georgiou. “The FSA’s findings are correct if taken in isolation, but studies such as these underestimate the accumulative nature of these toxins,” he says. “I believe it to be beyond reasonable doubt that heavy metals in foods are having a detrimental effect on health.”

What can we do about it?

The FSA promotes a varied diet as the best way to minimise intake of heavy metal toxins. Buying organic should, in theory, reduce your intake. Or you can take more drastic action. Compounds able to detoxify the body by locking onto heavy metal molecules and flushing them out via natural excretion are called chelators, and chemical chelation has long been used as a treatment for acute metal poisoning. Dr Georgiou has developed a natural chelator called HMD, which has been tested on 350 people and shown to eliminate heavy metals from the body. So the situation is heavy – but treatments such as these could help lift the load.

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