Before beginning this discussion, it’s worth mentioning that mercury is the single most toxic non-nuclear element known to man. To get an idea of how toxic it is, consider that adding 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury every year to a 25-acre lake will pollute it in just a few years to the point of making the fish in it hazardous for human consumption (1). A well-recognized safety threshold for mercury in human blood is 5.8 parts per billion, a minuscule amount.
In infants and small children, mercury interferes with normal neurological development and is suspected of causing a broad range of disorders from autism to ADHD and dyslexia. In
adults, its effects are non-specific but it can play a role in causing a multitude of conditions including depression and anxiety, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and immune system disorders.
Nevertheless we continue to pour mercury into our environment, primarily from coal-burning power plants that, according to estimates, spew 40 tons or 80,000 lbs of mercury into our environment each year in the U.S. alone (2). Mercury has now been detected everywhere in our surroundings, including in New York snow and rain at levels far above those considered safe (3). This mercury then flows to lakes and oceans, where it accumulates in the fish we eat.
We have also been operating on the premise that adding a little mercury here and there isn’t going to hurt anyone, and so we’ve put it in vaccines and other medications as the
preservative thimerosal. We also use it to make dental fillings known as “silver” or amalgam fillings, which are 50% mercury, even though it has been shown to leak from these fillings (4).
The results are beginning to be revealed. Studying levels of mercury in umbilical cord blood, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently concluded that as many as 630,000 babies are born each year in our country at risk of lowered intelligence and learning problems due to exposure to mercury in the womb.
This finding doubles previous estimates by the EPA. In earlier studies, the agency only evaluated levels of mercury in women’s blood, considering 5.8 parts-per-billion (ppb) to be the threshold for danger.
Looking instead at umbilical cord blood, the EPA came to the realization that a fetus has no means of excreting mercury, so levels as low as 3.5 ppb in maternal blood lead to a
dangerous buildup in newborns. The EPA estimates that 1 in 6 women in our country has blood levels of mercury above 3.5 ppb (5).
Another astounding piece of the puzzle comes from a recent Institute of Medicine press release relating to an independent review of vaccine safety data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (6). Analyzing pre-existing data, investigators concluded that children who receive three vaccines containing mercury as the preservative thimerosal are 27 times more likely to develop autism than children who receive the same vaccines without thimerosal. By comparison, men who smoke have a risk factor for developing lung cancer of 22 times over men who do not smoke, while for female smokers it is only 11 times more likely.
I have not seen any official denials of the EPA’s conclusions but I understand they are still under review. If confirmed, they are likely to have momentous repercussions. These findings clearly point away from genetics as a cause of neuro-developmental disorders and towards environmental causes. However, genetics do play a part.
In a seemingly unrelated study, investigators focused on genes that encode for glutathione-s-transferases (GSTs). GSTs are enzymes that detoxify the body from environmental poisons. Mutations in these genes are common, occurring in up to 20% of the human race, and result in a reduced ability to excrete toxins, eventually leading the toxins to build up in the body.
In the past, the presence of these mutations would not have made much difference to human health. But now, with increased levels of pollutants, these individual differences are becoming critical to the body’s ability to detoxify itself and can be the difference, for instance, between those children who withstand mercury in vaccines with little detriment to their neurological development, and those who don’t (7).
Additional research was conducted by Richard Deth, PhD, of Northeastern University and will be published in next month’s issue of Molecular Psychiatry (8). It shows that exposure
to toxic metals, including mercury, aluminum and lead, can cause adverse effects on methylation reactions in the brain and elsewhere in the body.
In simple terms, methylation reactions are basic processes whereby tiny compounds containing a single carbon atom are transferred from one molecule to another. They can be thought of as power switches used by the brain and other parts of the body to turn many critical processes on or off, including DNA function and gene expression.
If methylation is disrupted early in life for instance as a result of exposure to mercury this can affect development of the brain and lead to conditions like autism and ADHD.
One molecule that must be methylated to become active is vitamin B12. Basically, if the brain cannot methylate efficiently, any vitamin B12 that is there is useless and cannot play its fundamental role in orchestrating brain activity. This explains why regular injections of a methylated form of vitamin B12 (MB12) have produced such major clinical improvements in a majority of children with autism. These injections might repair (we hope) or may just compensate for damage previously caused by mercury.
MB12 injections have also been used for some time in Europe and in the U.S. by forward-thinking physicians in the treatment of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple
sclerosis, and other conditions that may be partially related to mercury exposure in adults (9).
These many findings on mercury also give us a better understanding of why chelation a treatment approach to remove mercury and other toxic metals from the body has been such a major help for many children with autism and ADHD.
Chelation generally involves tak ing a product called DMSA on a rotating basis. Once inside the body DMSA acts as a magnet for mercury, lead, arsenic, and other toxic metals, safely shuttling these poisons out of the body through the urine. According to data collected by the Autism Research Institute (ARI) and DAN (Defeat Autism Now), when children can be shown to excrete metals while taking DMSA they almost always improve, sometimes dramatically.
Although DMSA is safe, some may not be able to tolerate it and can experience side effects (none serious or lasting). In these cases there are other detoxification approaches that show a great deal of promise. One of these involves a type of vitamin B1 called allithiamine, generally administered in cream form and absorbed through the skin.
A type of algae called chlorella has not been recommended for detoxification because much of the chlorella on the market is compromised at the source. Since chlorella has an
enormous affinity for mercury it binds to it in the ponds where it is generally grown and is therefore already contaminated before it’s even harvested.
However, certified uncontaminated chlorella deserves a closer look as a valid, safe and cost-effective option for removing mercury from the body. Like DMSA, chlorella is a magnet for mercury and other toxic metals. It is milder than DMSA and therefore better tolerated by some individuals. While it is true that chlorella is easily contaminated from external sources, there are types that are pure. In Germany, chlorella is grown for medical purposes in enormous glass tubes that create a completely isolated environment where contamination is virtually impossible (10).
(7) Lancet, 2004 Jan 10; 363 (9403): 119-25
(8) Molecular Psychiatry 2004, Volume 9, advance online publication doi:10.1038/sj.mp.4001476. For further information contact Christine Phelan, Northeastern University, Pharmaceutical Sciences, 716 Columbus Avenue, 5th floor, Boston, Massachusetts 02120; phone: 617-373-5455