Are You Aware of This Silent killer?

The year I entered high school, the New York Board of Education delayed our first day of school for two weeks in order to remove “harmful” asbestos. I recall the news coming as more of an extension to summer vacation than a health measure. I hadn’t a clue what the stuff was or why it was harmful; only that it was hidden from view and needed to be removed carefully. Fast forward to 9/11, when the collapse of the towers sent thousands of pounds of iridescent dust into the sky blanketing all of lower Manhattan for months. The pulverized building materials contained asbestos, amongst other things, and everyone who worked at Ground Zero inhaled the largest dose of it. Within 10 years, we started seeing many first responders come down with all sorts of respiratory illnesses, among which was a rare form of cancer called Mesothelioma. Victims and their families have been fighting with Insurance companies and government health agencies ever since to acknowledge that the cancer was directly caused by all those hours exposed to asbestos dust. The sad fact is they shouldn’t have to. All one has to do is take a look back in history to the early part of the 20th century to know what a “silent killer” this material was and still is.

Asbestos fibers poking out of this dry wall

 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been mined for over 4000 years. In ancient times, it was used to strengthen cooking pots and for creating fire retardant cloth. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, it was only being used in cloth manufacture. However, this soon changed when its key properties of fire proofing and tensile strength helped builders solve the problem of insulating homes on the cheap in densely populated cities like London. Its affordability eventually made it the go to material for many items related to the home. As noted in this article from the Guardian, “The use of asbestos became increasingly widespread towards the end of the 19th century, when its diverse applications included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, and drywall joint compound.” It’s literally in everything! It makes you wonder how many homes built in the US still contain asbestos. Per the U.S. Product Safety Commission site, it’s noted that homes built between 1930 and 1950 may contain asbestos in their insulation. It also adds that in older homes (I’ll take a gander and say homes built in the early 1900’s) the pipes may be coated with asbestos or lined with asbestos blanket. Either way you look at it, asbestos is everywhere, but it only poses a threat if you disturb it.

There is written evidence even from Roman times that asbestos had detrimental affects on the body. In the early 1900’s there were a large number of respiratory issues and early deaths of people who worked with the material in mining towns. Also factored into this death toll were the wives and family members of the workers, presumably due to the fact that they laundered the uniforms caked in asbestos dust. When autopsies were done, the lungs of these people showed lesions and scar tissue created by the asbestos fibers they inhaled. These fibers are comprised of microscopic angular crystals that get into the respiratory tract and literally cut up lung tissue. The resulting scarring or fibrosis and constant irritation to the lung tissue led to a chronic respiratory condition coined asbestosis as well as the development of Mesothelioma. Many investigations were conducted in the early 1900’s into the hazards of asbestos, but this did nothing to curb its mining and use. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that government legislation was set up to regulate its industry; first in the UK and then the US. Better ventilation was called for as well as acknowledging asbestosis as an occupational disease. This was also when mesothelioma was first noted in medical text (c.1931)

With all this evidence, it really confounds me that insurance companies and the government agencies responsible for allocating funding to victims of 9/11 are giving claimants such a hard time. It also confounds me why the US has not fully banned the use of asbestos, unlike Australia and the UK. According to the EPA’s website, asbestos use is not banned in the manufacture, importation, processing and distribution in commerce of the following products:

  • Cement corrugated sheet
  • Cement flat sheet
  • Clothing
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roofing felt
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Cement shingle
  • Millboard
  • Cement pipe
  • Automatic transmission components
  • Clutch facings
  • Friction materials
  • Disk brake pads
  • Drum brake linings
  • Brake blocks
  • Gaskets
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Roof coatings

Um, wow.

This past week of April 1-7th was Asbestos Awareness Week. If you never knew what the stuff was before reading the above, I hope you can understand just what a danger it poses to our environment and obviously, to our health. It’s a bit of a morbid addendum, but asbestos related illnesses, like Mesothelioma, take sometimes decades to show up. As a result, there will be many more deaths related to the dust inhaled after the Towers collapsed in the years to come. These people shouldn’t have to fight for the care they clearly deserve. For more information, see the websites noted below. Then go outside and take a deep breath for every person who can’t do so thanks to asbestos.

 

Additional Information and Sources:

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance:  http://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-cancer/what-is-asbestos.htm

The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection: http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/us-federal-bans-asbestos

Columbia University Research: http://www.cumc.columbia.edu/dept/medicine/mesothelioma/mesothel.html

 

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Heavy Metals Will Rock You

…and not in the way that involves big hair and thrashing one’s body around. No, the heavy metal I’m referring to is that which basic chemistry defines as any metal or metalloid compound in the environment that is cause for concern. This concern is due to its adverse affects on human health and surrounding habitat and not so much on how “heavy” the compound actually is. These metals are EVERYWHERE but their toxic concentrations are the bi-product of human industrialization. For instance, vehicle emissions are the worst for releasing toxic metals into the air. Live near a highway or major metro area and your body is constantly filtering in contaminants including arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, nickel, lead, antimony, vanadium, zinc, platinum, palladium and rhodium. Soil tests along many major roadways in the U.S. indicated that they still retain high levels of lead, despite the phase out of lead in gasoline almost 20 years ago. Fertilizers, paints, treated woods, lead-acid batteries and mining/factory wastes are other sources of contamination. Heavy metals can get in through the air, as noted before, as well as through the water, surface of the skin and the ingestion of plants that have been exposed to contaminated soil and/or water. Also note, the animals that feast on these plants also become a source of exposure to us humans who may dine on them at a later time.

This image shows how heavy metals get released into the Mississippi River courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey Circular

Now, let’s break down how heavy metals negatively affect human health. Certain metals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron are found in living tissue and are essential to human life; however in high concentrations are toxic. Others, like the aforementioned cadmium, lead and mercury are toxic even in low concentrations. Once the metals are introduced into the body, it’s ultimately the liver’s job to filter out what is not necessary and store what it needs. These metals bind to cellular walls and the metabolically active regions within the cell that not only mess with  its structure, but also its function. Short term symptoms of toxicity depend on the individual metal and how much of it has built up in the body. Over the long term, many of these metals cause cells to turn cancerous, warp and destroy parts of the central and peripheral nervous system and also reduce and/or destroy red blood cells which affects our circulatory system.

Diagram of the various health anomalies that occur with short and long term exposure of heavy metals (courtesy of DATCS)

With some level of exposure being inevitable in our industrialized world, what can we do to mitigate the affects of heavy metals on our health? There is an FDA approved therapy known as chelation which assists the body in cleansing itself of heavy metal deposits. This therapy is administered by a doctor, who will give you a full evaluation and blood screening prior to beginning the treatment. After you have been assessed for levels of heavy metals, etc. you will be administered a binding agent or chelator intravenously along with vitamin C, B complex, Magnesium and specific homeopathics to support the detoxification. Seated in a chair, your session will be about 30-40 minutes. Perusing various sites that describe the treatment it ironically resembles chemotherapy with its grouping of comfortable recliners and patients seated hooked up to I.V.’s. The doctor will recommend a particular amount of sessions before your blood is reevaluated to indicate if more treatments are necessary. It must be noted that some of the chelators  used to bind to heavy metals have their own side effects that could be detrimental to health in the long term; however research is being done to find safer and more effective ones.

Before chelation becomes necessary, it is important to assess your environmental and occupational risks. Is your workplace exposing you to toxins? Obviously if you work in a factory or manufacturing plant as well as in a mine or refinery, you will be exposed if you do not follow safety guidelines, which include wearing protective clothing/gear and properly decontaminating through hygienic practices like skin washing. In your daily life, you can use a filtration system to filter your water of heavy metals and contaminants. There are tons on the market now and are very easily available. Read products labels of the cleansers and products you used daily in your home to see if they contain any heavy metals and protect yourself accordingly. Or even better, swap those cleansers for greener choices that are free of these toxins. Also, avoid getting mercury fillings in your teeth as the amalgam releases small amounts of mercury over time into your body. Find out what other filler alternatives are available (and they are) and choose a dentist who has experience in the safe removal of mercury fillings, so you can have them replaced without exposing yourself to further poisoning. And of course, if you live right on top of a factory, plant or major roadway, it might make you want to reconsider your address lest you never open your windows without the aid of an air filter at all times.

The next and probably most important thing is to assess your nutrition to make sure you are sufficient in calcium, iron and zinc. These three elements bind to lead and cadmium preventing its absorption. Note that I mentioned sufficiency and not excess, which would be toxic to the body. In addition, make sure if you are consuming fish oil, that is from mercury free critters of the sea. And the same goes for the consumption of fish. Know which ones have higher levels of mercury (examples: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, etc.)and limit yourself to no more than one serving per week, if that. Also Vitamin C and E bind to heavy metals and allow them to be flushed out of the system. Vitamin E consumption in studies with lab mice who had been exposed to heavy metals indicated a boost in anti-oxidant defenses and reduction of tissue damage. Taking it one step further, a combination of Vitamin E and C dosage was administered to workers who had significant levels of heavy metal toxicity. After 6 months, there was such a significant repair and boosting of anti-oxidant defenses that their scans compared to people who had never been exposed at all to such toxins. Other nutrients like Folate, Garlic, Cilantro and Selenium have also shown to reduce levels of heavy metals in the body as well as boost liver health. Go nutrition and the ancient Greeks who believed food to be thy medicine.

In conclusion, if you are curious or believe that you might be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, ask your doctor to order you a blood panel for heavy metals as well as a comprehensive blood count, which tests the health of your kidneys, liver and iron levels in your blood. Dependent on the findings you can make the lifestyle and nutritional modifications necessary to rock your life out for many years to come sans the influence of heavy metals!!