The Role of Heavy Metals in Preventing Mold Illness Recovery

By Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

The primary focus for most of our newsletter articles is about getting patients healed from chronic illness and disease triggered by mold and mycotoxin exposure and environmental toxins.  But what about those times, and they do happen, when the environment has been cleaned up, the internal mold has been treated, hormones are back in balance, yet recovery still feels elusive and is not what was expected?   To answer that, we are launching a series of articles that may help explain the  question, “Why am I Not Getting Better?” In each article, I hope to exemplify some of the main recovery roadblocks with specific patient histories to show how we dealt with that exact question.

When Treating Mold is Not Enough

Hilda M., a 38-year-old woman with extreme fatigue, night sweats, burning in her feet and legs, and unexplained heart rhythm abnormalities, was one such patient.  Hilda was originally from Holland and became ill while still living in her hometown near Amsterdam   She had hoped that by moving to the US she would become healthier, but that did not happen.  A detailed history revealed that her apartment in Holland had flooded several times, and that she had periodically scrubbed mold and mildew off the walls and furniture.  Subsequent nasal swabs, bloodwork and urine tests for mycotoxins revealed significant levels of mold-induced inflammation and toxicity.  Her home in the USA was basically ok, but all clothing she brought with her had to be cleaned or disposed of, as the mold spores residing on the clothing were quite high.  She was treated for the fungal overgrowth, put on a gentle detox protocol, used oxygen therapy, and followed a good nutritional protocol.   After 6 weeks of treatment, Hilda felt better with less respiratory symptoms, but still exhibited skin rashes and her stamina was not where we felt it should be. Additionally, her cardiac arrhythmias had calmed somewhat, but the burning in her feet and legs persisted.

Revisiting the Patient’s History

Going back through her history to see where there might be other environmental burdens, an important fact was revealed: Hilda’s family owned a steel plant. As a result, she had been in and around the steel factory for years.  In researching some of the processes done in such places, the suspicion that she had possibly incurred a burden of heavy metals came to the forefront. Further testing revealed that Hilda had remarkably high levels of lead, cadmium, antimony, and mercury. We then were able to institute slow and gentle chelation therapy to gradually reduce the level of metals in her body. With that final piece of the treatment puzzle in place, the rest of Hilda’s symptoms dramatically improved.

In Hilda’s case, heavy metals were part of her total body load.  While the mold and mycotoxins were the blow that caused her health to spiral downward, she could not fully recover until the metals were dealt with also. In her history, she certainly had long exposure from being in the steel plant; for the average person who has no such exposure, can metals also be a problem?  The answer to this is yes.  There is still the unique dance between the body’s ability to detoxify and exposure, but throughout my career in environmental medicine, I have found situations in which metals were substantially elevated for a variety of causes.

Health Issues Associated with Heavy Metal Exposure

The health issues that arose from heavy metal exposures go back many years. For example, “Mad Hatter’s Disease” was a mental disorder that the makers of hats succumbed to due to the mercury used in felting the hats that they made. There is also scientific study showing that elevated lead levels in children, particularly in urban areas that still contain lead-based paint, are associated with lower IQ, learning disorders, and violent behaviors.  (This is one reason that the recent Flint River water crisis is so concerning, we have yet to see the full impact of this disaster).

Elevated mercury levels have been associated with many autoimmune and neurologic disorders.  The study associating the use of mercury as a preservative in infant vaccines with autism was discounted by traditional medicine but, nevertheless, vaccine companies removed mercury as the preservative to help alleviate the concern.

Aluminum deposits have been found in the brains upon autopsy in some patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.  We also know that aluminum displaces magnesium and may also lead to increased musculoskeletal pain and weakness. Thus, Fibromyalgia treatment almost always includes the use of magnesium malate to block activity of aluminum.

Heavy Metals Testing

The problem with heavy metal testing in traditional settings is that it is typically done through a blood test.  This is helpful only if there is current and ongoing exposure, as most metals go through a process of sequestration in which they imbed in tissues, including bone, liver, and the brain. More accurate assessment of heavy metals should be done through a specialized urine challenge test. For this test, an oral or IV medication is given to the patient that pulls heavy metals out of tissues, which are then expelled into urine.  Assaying the urine after this “challenge” can then give a better idea if, indeed, heavy metals are part of the body burden.

Who Should Be Concerned About Heavy Metals?

Most individuals have some metals; it is impossible not to!  In our industrialized world, metals are everywhere including in air pollution byproducts (mercury, lead, antimony), cigarette smoke (cadmium), vulcanization of rock (uranium), etc. In real estate paperwork, most states require a lead paint disclosure for any property built prior to 1974, when lead paint was the norm.  Many of us grew up with leaded gasoline, topical mercury containing antiseptics (mercurochrome), and shined our silver dimes and quarters with mercury.  It is still not unusual for someone to have a mouthful of mercury containing amalgam fillings!

Heavy Metal Symptoms

While eliminating exposure is almost impossible, knowing the health symptoms that elevated levels of heavy metals can have on the body may be one of the best ways to tune into whether you should test for them. Besides the gross impacts mentioned above, heavy metals can disrupt normal hormonal function– fatigue, brain fog, or resistant weight loss.  They also may impact the body’s immunity by binding in the small intestine with white blood cells and may be at the base of some hidden food allergies.  As heavy metals are, in general, very disruptive to basic cell function, oxidative stress is greatly increased throughout the body when heavy metal levels are too high.  For example, there are some studies that strongly suggest a correlation between arteriosclerotic heart disease and other circulatory problems and heavy metal levels.

Is It Mold or Something Else?

First, if you are living in a moldy home or consistently breathing moldy air, that must be addressed before other interventions can be successful, in my opinion. You breathe about 2,900 gallons of air a day. You cannot outdo that with supplements or treatment. But all medicine must be thought about in terms of the individual.  For mold or heavy metals alike, what is a huge burden to some is a lesser factor in others; when or if you are failing to get better from conventional treatment, metal load needs consideration as part of the total body load that impedes getting well from another identified problem!

Limiting Heavy Metal Exposures

Besides testing, in general, and because it is a good best practice for health, we recommend to all patients that they limit their exposure to heavy metals whenever and wherever possible.  For aluminum, some simple measures include avoidance of aluminum foil, aluminum-containing antiperspirants, aluminum in certain antacids, and baking powder.

Mercury avoidance is, of course, the avoidance of thimerosal as a preservative, when possible.  As mentioned, this has been removed from most vaccines but other places you may see it is in contact lens solutions, eye drops, and some veterinary products.  Whenever possible, avoid amalgam fillings in the teeth.  Even old fillings still outgas mercury through the action of chewing and acid saliva.  If indicated, these fillings may need to be removed and replaced with a composite or porcelain restoration.

Lead, while no longer in gasoline, is still ubiquitous.  Ammunition, fishing weights, and art paints still have plenty of lead.  While on the topic of oil paints, all of you artists out there please use these rich colors with care and caution in well-ventilated spaces.  Cadmium, lead, and mercury all give those beautiful hues but don’t need to be on your skin or breathed in through the vapors.

Be particularly careful about products brought in from China.  Some children’s toys and jewelry have been found to contain lead paint.  Arsenic has infiltrated certain pet products imported in from the East.  They do not have the same standards as the US.

Lead pipes still exist.  It was only a few years ago that we tested water in a well-known school system in Atlanta, with older drinking fountains, and the level of lead was quite high.  The only way to know is to ask and to test.  Your health and that of your children may depend on it.

While fish is thought to be an extremely healthy food, unfortunately, many large fish have remarkably high burdens of mercury in them due to the pollution in the ocean.  A rule of thumb is, the larger the fish, the higher the mercury level.  Avoid entirely shark, swordfish, and king mackerel, as their levels are too high to eat except on an extremely occasional basis.  Tuna should only be consumed once or twice monthly and is not recommended for pregnant women.    Safest fish to eat are those from cold northern waters, such as wild-caught salmon, halibut, and cod.  Smaller fish, such as sardines, are generally ok due to their size!

Some herbicides and pesticides not only contain unwanted chemicals but heavy metals as well  Another argument for eating organic!

Always Consider the Total Body Load

In conclusion, always think, “total body load”.   If you are not getting better, then go back and think about where your toxic load was or is still elevated?  Think about your environment, food, water, and air. Many times, a closer look at your history and lifestyle will give you all the clues you need to eliminate that final toxic burden preventing your full recovery.

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