Heavy Metals in Natural Health Supplements
Heavy metal contamination in natural health supplements is unfortunately a very real and serious issue. It is essential to choose only supplements that are extremely low in heavy metals.
At 88Herbs, we take this extremely seriously and do everything we can to ensure all of our supplements contain the lowest possible levels of heavy metals. We have significantly lower levels than the limits set by the FDA and Health Canada . We source all of our own ingredients and have them all 3rd party tested.
This article is a detailed analysis of heavy metals that can be found in supplements.
What are heavy metals?
A detailed white paper from the American Herbal Products Association states:
“The term “heavy metal” is a rather poorly defined term that has come to refer to a group of elements that can be toxic when consumed by humans, including lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd), arsenic (As), and chromium (Cr). There are concerns about the potential health effects of some of these elements, or specific forms of these elements, whenever they are present in products that can be ingested, such as foods or dietary supplements. Heavy metals can, in certain quantities, cause disease, be carcinogenic, have adverse reproductive effects, unfavorably impact nutrition, and displace more biologically useful metals such as calcium and zinc”
There are elemental, organic, and inorganic forms of each of these heavy metals.
Which heavy metals are most common in certain supplements?
The most common toxic heavy metals found in supplements are:
- Mercury (and methylmercury)
The levels of these 4 heavy metals should each be tested by a 3rd party lab before supplements should be sold on the market.
The different forms of these heavy metals (elemental, organic, and inorganic forms) all cause different health problems. From the same white paper linked above:
“It is well established, for example, that the inorganic form of arsenic, i.e., arsenic bound with oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur, presents a significantly greater health risk than organic forms bound with carbon and hydrogen. Similarly, because methylmercury is readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, it is that organic form of mercury for which health concerns are most acute.”
Tests should ensure that all forms of these heavy metals are in extremely low (negligible) levels in any product.
What do you mean different forms of heavy metals?
Let’s take mercury as an example. If someone breaks a thermometer they will be exposed to elemental mercury. If they eat fish that is high in “mercury” we are actually talking about methylmercury in this case.
The New York State Department of Health explains it well
“What is mercury?
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is also released into the environment through human activity. Mercury occurs in several forms.
“Elemental mercury is a silvery, odorless liquid that evaporates slowly at room temperature, becoming a vapor.
Inorganic mercury is mercury combined with other chemical elements such as chlorine, sulfur or oxygen.
Organic mercury is mercury combined with carbon-containing compounds. A common form of organic mercury is methylmercury which is produced by microorganisms in water and soil, and which accumulates in fish.”
How do heavy metals get into some health supplements?
There are several ways. Many herbs are grown in China. A lot of the soil in China is polluted with heavy metals. Heavy metal pollution in soil often comes from mining, smelting, fracking, and heavy industry.
Here is a detailed look at soil pollution in China from ‘The Economist‘
a quote from that article,
“Cadmium is released during the smelting of ores of iron, lead and copper. It is a heavy metal. If ingested, the liver and kidneys cannot get rid of it from the body, so it accumulates, causing joint and bone disease and, sometimes, cancer.”
GMwatch sites a study showing that many pesticides add significant amounts of heavy metals to the soil. A quote,
“Glyphosate-based herbicides contain toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, chromium and nickel”
A lot of those pesticides in the study actually came from North America and the EU. So this is a global concern.
Another way that heavy metals get into the soil is from natural geological processes like volcanic eruptions. An article from the FDA.
“Arsenic levels in the environment are generally low but can vary depending on the natural geological makeup of local areas. For example, volcanic eruptions can bring arsenic from the earth’s interior to the surface.”
When herbs are grown in soil which is polluted with heavy metals, either from natural geologic processes or from man made pollution, the roots of the herbs absorb the heavy metals directly from the soil. It is noteworthy that even if a soil or plants look clean and healthy, they can still contain high levels of heavy metals and other toxins. Scientific testing is needed to know for sure.
How do I choose supplements that are low in heavy metals?
This is largely up to the consumer to research the company. A lot of companies use middle man distributors to source their ingredients for them. They may also whitelabel products from a factory who does the same thing. Virtually all of those ingredients come from mainland China and are neither standardized nor of the highest quality.
You need to choose a brand who:
- Sources their own ingredients individually from the highest quality producers
- Uses reputable 3rd party labs to test the actual finished product for each of the heavy metals
- Uses a trusted GMP facility to manufacture products
You may also wish to ensure that the company doesn’t use fillers such as magnesium stearate in any of their products.
Heavy metal testing
In order to ensure that the products are extremely low in any toxic heavy metals, each heavy metal must be tested for separately by a 3rd party lab.
At 88Herbs we make sure all forms of the heavy metals are at negligible levels, so we measure the “total” amount of each one separately. If the total level is low, then we know for sure that each form is also low. For example if the total amount of mercury is very low, then the total amount of methylmercury will also be very low.
The tests for the total amounts of each metal are the total amounts of the elemental, organic, and inorganic forms combined.
Our products all have significantly lower levels (by orders of magnitude) than even Health Canada’s strict regulations for heavy metal limits
Here is a list of our premium products