Mercury Exposure and Your Health
By Sara Russell, Ph.D., NTP
Mercury, even at average exposure levels, is a potent neurotoxin. It can cause and contribute to a variety of chronic illnesses. One of the main ways mercury causes illess is by depleting nutrients. However, symptoms come on slowly and gradually after the initial exposure, and mercury’s toxic effects are so broad that most doctors do not make the connection between chronic illness and mercury exposure.
This post is an introduction to mercury toxicity, and is a topic I’ve researched extensively. If you’d like to further your reading on the topic, make sure you read my article and watch this video where I explain it in more detail.
To learn more about how mercury works in the body, you can read the extensive chapter on mercury in the Handbook on the Toxicology of Metals.
Mercury toxicity transcends awareness and memory
It can be hard to nail down mercury exposure, because it can be acute or gradual, and many people are unaware of most exposure sources. It’s also common for people to forget a mercury exposure because it may seem insignificant at the time.
And yet, whether you know it’s there or not, mercury toxicity has detrimental effects of every system in the body. It is easy for mercury to get into the body and accumulate in cells and tissues, but quite difficult to remove it.
Passing through the Generations: an Unwanted Inheritance
Furthermore, because mercury bioaccumulates over time and is passed on from mother to child, mercury toxicity builds over our individual lifetimes and from one generation to the next during pregnancy and breastfeeding. So you and even your children could be paying the price of your mother’s and grandmother’s mercury exposure.
In fact, mercury in the mother’s body crosses the placenta and accumulates in the developing fetus. Mercury is also excreted into breast milk, so precautions must be taken until breastfeeding is terminated. Studies show that levels of mercury in the placenta, breast milk and cord blood correlate with the number of amalgam fillings in the mother. See this link and this one for more information.
Looking out for Future Generations
Knowing the basic facts about fetal mercury exposure can help you take precautions during preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding. If you are not yet pregnant, this information can help you time conception in such a way as to protect your baby from mercury. We all have some level of mercury accumulation in our bodies, and developing fetuses are much more susceptible to the effects of mercury than the rest of the population. The purpose of this article is not to alarm you, but rather to empower you with information you can do to reduce your baby’s mercury exposure.
Common Mercury Exposure Sources
For most people, the most significant sources of mercury exposure are dental amalgam (silver-colored fillings), fish consumption and mercury-containing vaccines. Because mercury accumulates from one generation to the next during pregnancy and breastfeeding, you will need consider your own exposure history as well as your mother’s, maternal grandmother’s, and your maternal grandmother’s mother’s. Amalgam fillings have been in use for about 150 years and have thus affected humans for several generations.
Dental amalgam is about 50% mercury, constituting an ongoing toxic exposure for those who have such fillings. The World Health Organization’s report on the topic estimates that the typical daily dose of mercury absorbed from amalgams is 1–22 micrograms, with an average total of 1-5 or 5-9 micrograms per day, depending on the study. Various factors can considerably increase the exposure levels, which can reach an upper range of about 100 micrograms per day in people who chew gum and/or grind their teeth, as the WHO report linked above notes.
Other mercury exposure sources
Other than mercury, the two best-known mercury exposure sources include thimerosal containing vaccines and fish. It is important to take into account some of the lesser-known exposure sources as well.
- Household products: broken compact fluorescent lightbulbs, broken mercury thermometers
- Health and beauty products: some nasal sprays, ear drops and hemorrhoid creams, some cosmetics (particularly mascara) – although regulations change over time and by country
- Occupational exposure. This applied particularly to anyone working in dental offices, the coal and gold mining industries, or in workplaces with pressure gauges
- Educational/hobby: elemental mercury present in chemistry sets
- Some religious and folk healing rituals use mercury.
- Other: cinnabar used in jewelry, tattoo dyes and other applications. Cinnabar, or mercuric sulfide, yields characteristic red pigments. Not all red tattoo dyes use cinnabar. Some use iron- or cadmium-based pigments. Cinnabar is sometimes referred to as “vermillion.” Also, cinnabar is used in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is known as ‘zhu sha’ and used in a variety of formulas, which are restricted or illegal in the US, but nonetheless used in some very traditional contexts.
Because mercury from broken compact fluorescent bulbs and thermometers, chemistry sets, religious rituals and hobby/occupational use remains in the environment and offgasses slowly over a period of months to years, some people are unknowingly exposed to mercury in their home or workplace. For example, when a dental practice closes or moves, it is not required to conduct any particular cleanup, and the future tenant is not warned of the potential risks. Similarly, if you have a used vacuum cleaner that has previously been used to clean floors or carpets where mercury was spilled, then you will be repeatedly exposed to mercury.
Pre-conception Strategies to Protect the Next Generation
Before conceiving a baby, it is a good idea to ask yourself three basic questions:
- What is our timeline? How flexible can we be?
- What can I do before conception to reduce mercury in my body and in my immediate environment?
- What can I do throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding to reduce mercury exposure?
Some couples have more flexibility in their timeline than others, and a number of circumstances can impact the degree of flexibility, the most common being concerns about parental age. The more flexible your timeline, the more proactively you can work before conception. All the work you and your partner do prior to conception to decrease your mercury load will also increase your fertility, reduce the chances of miscarriage and improve the health of the sperm and eggs. However, if your timeline is short, you must focus on preventing new mercury exposures and reducing the offgassing and recirculation of mercury rather than removing the mercury already in your body. Conceiving a baby during or shortly after removing mercury can do a lot of damage by increasing the amount of mercury that crosses the placenta.
If you have a flexible timeline and have amalgam fillings in your mouth, you may want to consider safely removing them and going through a safe and gentle detoxification protocol prior to conception, in the form of mineral balancing and foundational nutritional support with an experienced and qualified practitioner, such as myself. I definitely agree with mercury expert Andrew Cutlerìs recommendation that women wait at least 18 months after the last amalgam removal before trying to conceive.
If you do not have amalgam fillings in your mouth but have a history of mercury exposure and your timeline is flexible, you may likewise want to consider gentle and individualized detoxification support prior to conception.
If your timeline is short, or you are already pregnant, your goal should be on limiting mercury exposure as much as possible. Do not place or remove amalgam fillings during preconception, pregnancy or breastfeeding.
If you have amalgam fillings and chew gum or grind your teeth, you are exponentially increasing the amount of mercury that offgasses from your fillings. So stop chewing gum and ask your health care practitioner and dentist for guidance if you grind your teeth. Along the same lines, the more metals you have in your mouth, the more volatile the mercury in any amalgam fillings you may have. So, for example, this is not a good time to place metal braces or retainers on your teeth.
Foods and Supplements to Avoid with Ongoing Mercury Toxicity
Two popular supplement ingredients you must avoid during preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding are alpha lipoic acid (also known as lipoic acid or thiotic acid) and chlorella. Alpha lipoic acid in particular is a common supplement ingredient, especially in anti-oxidant and blood-sugar regulation products, and even in the very popular immune-supporting product, Emergen-C®, as well a number of lotions. Unfortunately, both alpha lipoic acid and chlorella may have the unwanted effect of releasing stored mercury from the mom’s tissues and exposing the developing fetus to this highly toxic metal.
Cilantro leaf should also be avoided for the same reason. If you have a little in your Mexican or Southeast Asian dishes on occasion, that’s fine, but please don’t make cilantro-leaf soups and smoothies, and do make an effort to use this potent herb sparingly.
Don’t confuse alpha lipoic acid, which you should avoid, with alpha linoleic acid, which is an essential fatty acid present in many healthy foods, and which you can safely enjoy throughout all stages of life. Both are often abbreviated as ALA. If you are confused, please ask your health care practitioner to clarify this for you.
Putting it all together
If you are ready to address a chronic health issue, or plan to start a family, it’s a good idea to assess your past mercury exposure and any current lifestyle and environmental factors that could be a risk for ongoing of future exposure. Try taking simple steps such as replacing compact fluorescent lightbulbs with mercury-free alternatives and avoiding gum chewing if you currently have amalgam fillings.
Reach out for Individualized Support
If you would like to address a complex health issue that may relate to mercury exposure, you may need personalized guidance and support. Mercury toxicity doesn’t lend itself well to protocol and healing from its effects is not a good do-it-yourself project, because so many variables are at stake.
I offer a complimentary 30-minute consultation to prospective clients, so make sure you reach out. I would be honored to help you!
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