Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Heavy Metals, Autism, Special Education and Vitamins (B-complex, Niacin, and Vitamin C)

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.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and vanadium are all emitted to industry and regulated by the government. For example, the government requires <15 ppb lead in drinking water and <375 ppm in soil. For mercury, <2 ppb is required in drinking water and <0.14 ppb in lakes and streams is recommended. The lower threshold for lakes and streams prevents dangerous concentration of methyl mercury in fish. Fish sold in stores must contain <1 ppm methyl mercury. The numbers in these two examples are small, and typical of the rest of the heavy metals on the list. Many soil and water samples contain >10% of the government thresholds for action. Despite government action over the past several decades, the levels of most of these heavy metals in water and soil samples are probably rising. Good data is surprisingly hard to come by. Lead is an exception. Lead levels fell dramatically after lead was removed from paint, gasoline, and the solder for copper water pipes. The benefits from those actions will soon be fully effective, and lead levels may start to rise again.

The worst problem is that many of these metals are trace contaminants in coal and marine transportation fuel. Fifty metric tons/year of mercury are emitted from coal-fired power plants in the United States. I couldn’t find any data tracking the fate of the rest of the metals when coal is burned at power plants. The government is aware that this is unacceptable and is working, slowly, to reduce emissions.

The next obvious problem is that most of these metals are mined, smelted, purified, and sold as raw materials for industrial products. For example, about 6 million tons of lead, 2000 tons of mercury, and 20,000 tons of cadmium are mined, refined, and sold every year. Another serious problem involves sludge from sewage treatment plants. This material typically contains measurable levels of metals and is often used as fertilizers. Once spread onto fields, the metals will be absorbed by commodity crops, eaten by people and domesticated and animals, and excreted back into the sewage system. Over time, steady build-up of metals levels in the sewage sludge has to be a concern. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find data tracking metals levels in sewage sludge over time.

I’m unaware of any serious government action to eliminate these emissions. What do our government officials believe is going to become of these metals once they are refined and sold? Losses to air and water during the refining process, improper disposal of metal-containing products, and sewage plant sludge used as fertilizer should be expected to cause a relentless build-up of heavy metals in the environment. It looks to me like the unspoken plan is to allow levels of heavy metals to steadily build in the environment until the metals levels everywhere start to approach the thresholds stated in the regulations.

There isn’t scientific proof today that rising levels of heavy metals in the environment is contributing to the rising percentage of children recommended for special education services. When there is, I’m confident that emissions to the environment will be rapidly reduced. Until then, business interests are likely to maintain the status quo.

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. Although there is little in the way of proof that the levels of heavy metals average children are exposed to is causing harm, or that vitamins in excess of the RDA can protect them, there is even less 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.


At 7:45 PM, Anonymous LFM said...

Dr. Steve,
Thank you for your very informative and interesting articles. I have been searching for information on Niacin dosage for my 10 year old son who has learning difficulties. I fear that he may be borderline autism spectrum because many of his symptoms over the years have pointed to this. Tactile defensiveness, eating habits, visual tracking and auditory processing problems to name a few. They all seem to me to be neurologically related. He has also had high levels of lead and other supposedly "acceptable" amounts of heavy metals in him that were detected in a challenge urine test.

I am interested in your opinion on how you feel about immunizations playing a role in the rise of autism and autism related disorders as your articles do not mention this. We fully vaccinated our son because we were led to believe that this was the best thing for him and didn't even think about the consequences that it might have on his developing neurological system.

I have always supplemented him with vitamins because of his poor eating habits but want to give the extra Niacin a try since I found out it can help learning issues. Thank you also for your suggestion about the extra Vit. C. It's funny because he just asked me the other day why I stopped giving him the chewable Vit. C's because he really likes them. I will add that as well.

I am thankful for any thoughts, advice or opinions,


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