Saturday, June 30, 2007

Heavy Metals and Special Education, ADHD, and Autism

Heavy metals are known toxins to the developing nervous systems of children, and can cause brain damage that exhibits itself as learning disabilities. There is reason to fear that heavy metals are at least partly responsible for the fact that special education services are recommended for between 5 and 10% of children. If the numbers of children recommended for special education services continues to grow, almost every extended family will have a special education child.

Heavy metals in coal are a serious problem. An excellent source of information on trace elements in coal is found at:

Coal contains roughly 350 ppm of heavy metals. Roughly 10% of these metals are released to the atmosphere when the coal is burned. The 10% figure is based on a detailed EPA study of nickel releases found here:

and on information about lead found here:

Almost 7 billion tons of coal is burned every year. 2.5 million tons of heavy metals contaminate the coal. 2.25 million tons of the heavy metals are contained in roughly 500 million tons of coal ash disposed of every year. Some fraction of this 2.25 million tons almost certainly ends up in food and drinking water. The 250,000 tons of heavy metals emitted into the atmosphere are a more serious problem. Once emitted to the atmosphere, the heavy metals are dispersed globally.

Heavy metals considered hazardous air pollutants by the EPA total roughly 100 ppm in coal. These metals are: arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, mercury, manganese, nickel, lead, antimony, selenium, uranium, and thorium. In addition to the heavy metals, coals contain roughly 100 ppm fluorine and 1000 ppm chlorine. These are released as the acids HF and HCl (700,000 and 7 million tons respectively). Both these acids are considered hazardous air pollutants by the EPA.

The environmental movement rightfully celebrates the removal of lead from gasoline as a great success. At peak emissions in the early 1970’s, roughly 150,000 tons of lead per year were released to the atmosphere from leaded gasoline. At the time, lead emissions from coal combustion were on the order of 2,000 tons per year, a negligible contribution to the total. Today, lead emissions from gasoline are on the order of 2,000 tons per year and continuing to fall. Lead emissions from coal combustion are roughly 7,000 tons per year and rising.

The history of lead in gasoline proves that companies will risk the health of children for the reward of profits. The oil and automotive industries knew from the outset that putting lead into gasoline was accompanied by substantial health risks. An excellent account of the history of leaded gasoline can be found here:

There seems to be a great deal of uncertainty on the internet about whether heavy metals emissions from coal are a significant public health risk. Like the industries involved with leaded gasoline, today’s industries that depend upon coal for profit are also playing down the public health risks. There is no uncertainty in the scientific literature. Heavy metals are known neurological toxins. Lead levels in the blood of children are correlated with the results of intelligence tests. See a recent review on this subject here:

When heavy metals emissions from burning residual fuel oil are added to the heavy metals emitted by coal combustion, the total is roughly 300,000 tons per year. This is double the peak lead emissions of 150,000 tons per year.

I’m not optimistic about fixing this problem, especially in light of the history of the battle to remove lead from gasoline. In the meantime, I recommend that all parents and health care professional consider extra vitamins for children. The body can find poisonous metals, and either detoxify them or dissolve and urinate them away. This process can be thought of as a subset of wound healing. In animal studies, vitamins have been shown to prevent neurological damage during growth and development. B-complex vitamins are known to be involved in many of the metabolic pathways responsible for wound healing that are common to animals and children. It is not unreasonable to speculate that taking extra vitamin C and extra B-complex vitamins can help prevent trace heavy metals in the environment from harming children. There is no proof that extra vitamins can’t help. For my children, I chose the doses of vitamins where my fear of giving them too much was about equal to my fear that I wasn’t giving them enough.


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