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 Heavy Metal Toxicity-II

 Mercury has a particular affinity for brain tissue. The damage it does to brain cells can be devastating and irreparable.

Please return to first page of mercury poisoning  page

It's rare that people get exposed to the kind of toxic doses of mercury that occurred in the newly industrializing world of the 19th century, but it still does happen, and usually with tragic consequences. In the 1950s, in the most notorious case of mass mercury poisoning ever, an industrial plant near Minamata, Japan released large amounts of methyl mercury into Minamata Bay. Picked up by the plankton, the mercury moved up the food chain from fish to humans. Even the local cats were affected. When the residents of Minamata unknowingly fed the contaminated fish to their children (and their pets), the result was a devastating syndrome of severe nervous system damage, stunted mental development, blindness, paralysis, and death that nearly wiped out an entire generation.2

Since then, instances of large-scale mercury poisoning have also occurred in Japan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Guatemala. As recently as 1993, the town of Surabaya in East Java suffered hundreds of cases of "Minamata disease" due to chemical waste dumped upstream into the Surabaya River.

While disasters on this scale are, fortunately, rare and isolated, we still need to stay alert. Just a couple of years ago, a beauty cream made in Mexico ("Crema de Belleza-Manning") was associated with at least three cases of mercury poisoning in California, Texas, and New Mexico. Among the cream's ingredients was calomel (aka, mercurous chloride), containing 6 to 8% mercury by weight. The victims, aged 15, 33, and 35 years, suffered symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, insomnia, headache, numbness, irritability, and memory loss.3 Similar mental and physical effects have been observed in people exposed to low levels of mercury vapor.4,5


Because it's so easy to absorb mercury compounds through the skin, their use in cosmetics has been restricted - but not completely eliminated. Women who use eye makeup may not be able to avoid low-level mercury exposure if they use common commercial products. It seems that nothing else works quite as well as mercury as a preservative in some cosmetics, so the FDA, in its wisdom, permits a small, supposedly safe, amount of mercury - 65 parts per million (ppm) - in eye makeup.3

Health problems caused by low-level chronic
exposure to heavy metals may take years to
appear. By the time symptoms occur, it may
be too late to do anything about them.

It may well be that virtually everyone who has ever had a tooth filled may be continually exposing themselves to low levels of mercury. The standard amalgam tooth filling that dentists have been packing into people's teeth for decades weighs about 1.5 to 2 g and consist of 50% elemental mercury, 35% silver, 13% tin, 2% copper, and traces of zinc. Thus, every filled tooth is a little reservoir from which mercury vaporizes and leaches out over the course of a lifetime. It has been estimated that, depending on how many fillings you have in your mouth, you may be exposed to 10 to 100 g of mercury every day of your life, just from your teeth.

Can even this minuscule level of exposure cause problems? The answers are less than clear. Some studies indicate potentially serious consequences, especially in children, while others suggest little or no adverse effects.

An analysis of intra-oral mercury vapor found that those subjects with dental amalgams had nine times greater basal levels of mercury vapor than control subjects without amalgams. Chewing was found to stimulate mercury concentration sixfold, which amounted to a 54-fold increase compared with controls. Moreover, mercury levels remained elevated after 30 minutes of continuous chewing and declined slowly over 90 minutes after cessation of chewing. The authors calculated that all subjects were receiving an average daily dose of about 20 g, with the exposure increasing according to the number of amalgams. In some participants, the mercury exposure from dental amalgams was 18 times higher than the allowable daily limits set by some countries for exposure to all sources.6,7

Women who use eye makeup may not be
able to avoid low-level mercury exposure
if they use common commercial products.

In a Canadian study, amalgam fillings containing a radioactive tracer were placed in the teeth of laboratory monkeys. Within 4 weeks, traces of the radioactive mercury were found in high concentrations in various organs and tissues, with the highest levels in the kidney, GI tract, and jaw. Radioactive mercury amalgam placed in the teeth of pregnant sheep quickly found its way into the fetus. Mercury in the mother's milk could also be ingested by the newborn lamb.8

A small European study using a standardized personality inventory did find an effect, though. The researchers compared 29 15-year-olds with no fillings to 41 15-year-olds with fillings, and found that the kids with fillings were more prone to suffer from muscle tension and anxiety.9

In a US study, 25 women with amalgam fillings and 23 with no amalgams were given a standard personality test, the "Beck Depression Inventory." The women with fillings were found to have an increased risk of depression, as well as significantly greater tendency to express anger without provocation and to experience more intense angry feelings. The women with amalgam fillings also scored poorly on other behavioral measures: compared to their counterparts, they were more anxious, less pleasant, less happy, less secure, less steady, and had a harder time making decisions.10

Women with fillings were found to have an
increased risk of depression as well as a
significantly greater tendency to express
anger without provocation and to
experience more intense angry feelings.

continue to page three of mercury toxicity 

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