Heavy metal exposure: what to know

By Hayley Philip June 1, 2022 | 8 MIN READ

The Dirt

Heavy metals are everywhere—from the food you eat to the products you use to the air you breathe. While your body does a pretty good job eliminating them, the FDA is trying to reduce the presence of metals in our food since overexposure can cause health problems. Knowing what foods to eat to fortify your body and what foods to avoid can help combat the inevitable exposure.


Heavy metal exposure: what to know

Health and Nutrition

By Hayley Philip June 1, 2022 | 8 MIN READ

The Dirt

Heavy metals are everywhere—from the food you eat to the products you use to the air you breathe. While your body does a pretty good job eliminating them, the FDA is trying to reduce the presence of metals in our food since overexposure can cause health problems. Knowing what foods to eat to fortify your body and what foods to avoid can help combat the inevitable exposure.

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Heavy metals are virtually unavoidable—they are present in things we come into contact with every day— cookware, old paint, aluminum cans, foil, batteries, and many foods in our regular American diet. Some sources seem less obvious, like pesticides and organic foods. And noisy leaf blowers, too – they push heavy metals into the air we breathe.

It would be a fool’s errand to try avoiding each and every source of heavy metal around us. That said, there are ways we can help our bodies flush out excess heavy metals and protect us against free radical formation.

Heavy Metals in the News

In May, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an action plan called Closer to Zero. This plan details the agency’s actions to reduce exposure to arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury from foods eaten by babies and young children, the population most vulnerable to its harmful effects. In the FDA’s words, the new acceptable levels will be “as low as possible” for this age group as they better formulate their recommended limitations that will include the rest of us, as well…

The FDA’s four-stage plan approaches the improvements from a research and regulatory perspective. Their first step is to continue evaluating existing data from routine testing of the food supply and leveraging other agencies and stakeholders to determine how to decrease these levels. The FDA will publicly provide information about monitoring, research and enforcement action.

In Phase 1 of the FDA’s Action Plan, we provided action levels for lead in juice…. In Phase 2, we will adjust the action levels, as appropriate, to finalize guidance to industry on the lead action levels. After a period of monitoring that may also include enforcement, we will reassess as part of Phase 3 whether those levels should be adjusted downward.”

– The Food and Drug Administration

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that metals are occurring in all ecosystems from both natural concentrations and from human activities that redistribute these metals into water sources, air, and soil. The trouble for consumers and food producers alike is that heavy metals show no visible evidence, unlike sediments or nutrient build-up. They’re hard to spot and even harder to avoid.

Sources of Heavy Metals

Many heavy metals naturally occur in the Earth’s crust from the weathering of metal rocks, volcanic eruptions, deposits from the atmosphere, and leaching into soil and groundwater. But fertilizers, irrigation, emissions from industrial work, combustion of fossil fuels, mining, smelting, and other human activities also contribute to contamination.

heavy metals, Heavy metal exposure: what to know

No standards currently exist for agricultural sources in water or soil for heavy metal levels. Setting and monitoring those limitations is part of the Closer to Zero plan. But particular considerations, like metals naturally occurring in the soil – and then our food –  will complicate the determination of specific levels.

Common food sources tested and proven to have toxic heavy metal presence include processed fruit juices, which can have high levels of arsenic. Baby food is another very surprising source: up to 95% of the baby food samples tested showed positive for arsenic, lead, or cadmium.

Some consumers wonder if organic baby food is a better choice to avoid heavy metals—not necessarily. Consumer Reports reported that “organic foods were as likely to contain heavy metals as conventional foods.” Many baby foods contain brown rice, an arsenic source. Whether it’s organic or conventional, the ‘bran’ or outer shell of the rice can retain high levels of arsenic from the soil. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the FDA have recommended limiting rice intake for infants.

heavy metals, Heavy metal exposure: what to knowProbably the most common source we hear about for heavy metals in everyday foods is mercury in larger fish, like swordfish, shark, and the ever-popular tuna.

Heavy metals also exist in our drinking water. Research has shown that over 2,000 water systems have high levels of lead. Many of these water systems serve as irrigation for our crops, which impacts the levels of heavy metals in soil.

In turn, this affects the levels of heavy metals in the food grown in that soil, and ultimately determines the amount of heavy metals we ingest when we eat the foods grown in that soil.

Most foods that we eat have at least some trace amounts of heavy metals because of this process. And while trace amounts have not been found to have serious short-term health effects, the accumulation of these compounds over time may cause health issues.

Health Issues and Answers

Health issues caused by heavy metal buildup in the body have been heavily studied. Called “chronic toxic effects” or “heavy metal toxicity,” research has found that these metals can negatively impact a variety of organs. These include gastrointestinal and kidney dysfunction, autoimmune issues, thyroid problems, mitochondrial function, nervous system disorders, vascular damage, immune system dysfunction, certain types of cancers, and skin lesions.

Heavy metals can also lead to oxidative stress induced by the formation of free radicals,  which contribute to many chronic health issues and inflammatory issues that impact the above noted disorders.

Those with excess fat are more likely to have toxic buildup due to the “sticky” nature of white fat tissue. Epidemiological studies have shown a relationship between heavy metal exposure and the incidence of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Foods that Fight

To protect yourself from toxic heavy metal buildup, be sure to focus on exercise, getting between six and eight hours of sleep per night, and eating these foods to increase your brown fat.

Thankfully, there is a subset of foods that, when ingested, latch on to these heavy metals in the digestive process and remove them. These include:

  • Antioxidants: As nature’s most dense antioxidant, blueberries are a powerhouse for eliminating free radicals from our bodies. Other foods high in antioxidants include dark chocolate, pecans, strawberries, artichokes, kale, raspberries, beans, beets, spinach, and red cabbage.
  • Chlorella: a single-celled green alga found in leafy greens. It contains proteins, fats, carbs, fiber, chlorophyll, and various vitamins. Studies have found that chlorella can weaken the heavy metal toxicity of the liver, brain, and kidneys.
  • Probiotics: Good gut health all starts with pre- and probiotics. Probiotics (specifically lactobacillus strains) can bind to heavy metals and help flush them from the body during the digestion process. Add foods like kombucha, cottage cheese, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut into your diet.
  • Selenium: An important mineral in neurotoxin elimination. Excellent sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, spinach, pork, beef, chicken and turkey, eggs, mushrooms, and yogurt. Cilantro is also a good source of selenium but beware, however, of the social media trend saying that it specifically removes heavy metals from the brain. This is unfounded, and academics state that while a 2014 study showed that cilantro extract can alleviate lead-induced oxidative stress in certain tissues of rat brains, the study is not robust enough for conclusions on human brain tissues.

heavy metals, Heavy metal exposure: what to know

While it may seem more straightforward to take your antioxidants, chlorella, probiotics, and selenium in supplement form, opting for the whole food versions of these vitamins and minerals is always the best course of action. The FDA does not monitor the purity or quality of supplements, and the bioavailability in whole foods is greater.

Heavy Metal Concentrations

Wondering how you can get your heavy metals tested? Acute levels of heavy metals can be measured by a simple blood, urine, or hair sample test. However, to capture the accumulation of heavy metals in your system, a “provoked” urine test or “chelation challenge test” is best.

Some of us who live in areas of higher accumulations than others may want to consider getting our blood work done for heavy metal accumulations. The below maps show accumulations of arsenic and lead in the soil and cadmium in the air in different parts of the United States.

heavy metals, Heavy metal exposure: what to knowheavy metals, Heavy metal exposure: what to knowheavy metals, Heavy metal exposure: what to know

Some researchers recommend getting tested or having your heavy metal levels read if you live in these concentrated areas, if you live in an older home that may have aging water pipes, work in an industrial plant, or live in a region where emissions are highly likely.

Other recommendations outside of our food choice are simple tips like limiting the dust in our home, removing our shoes that may collect metals, being aware of any local fish advisories regarding mercury, and being mindful of any surrounding lead exposure in your environment (paint, workplace hazards, home remedies, and cosmetics, jewelry, etc.), and being sure to read the labels on products coming into your home to see if they contain heavy metals.

Ultimately, the goal is to equip yourself with knowledge. So instead of living in fear, you can feel prepared knowing that you are taking measures to proactively fortify your system and limit heavy metal exposures in environments that you can control, like your home.

The Bottom Line

Modern industrial society comes with advancements and resources that enrich our lives. However, being a developed nation also comes with cons, of which heavy metal contamination is one.  Avoiding the daily onslaught of heavy metals is impossible, but fortifying and protecting your body from these threats is not. Focus on these binding, free-radical fighting foods, reduce your white fat levels, and get your heavy metal levels tested to ensure you are doing all you can to protect yourself from toxic exposure.