- Chronic exposure to contaminant metals found in household products, air, water, soil and food is linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new scientific statement released by the American Heart Association.
- To find out about metal toxicity in your area, you can have your environment tested.
- Addressing metal exposure in low socioeconomic areas may provide a strategy to reduce cardiovascular disease disparities and advance environmental justice.
Numerous studies show the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. However, there is limited research on the impact of toxic metals on heart health.
According to a scientific statement published in the
The metals found were lead, cadmium and arsenic.
Even low-level exposure to these metals is considered dangerous. Researchers found a connection between lead, cadmium and arsenic exposure and coronary artery disease, stroke and peripheral artery disease.
“These metals interfere with essential biological functions and affect most populations on a global scale,” Ana Navas-Acien, M.D., Ph.D., vice chair of the statement writing group and a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the director of the Columbia University Northern Plains Superfund Research Program in New York City, said in a statement. “After exposure, lead and cadmium accumulate in the body and remain in bones and organs for decades. In the U.S. alone, one large study suggested that more than 450,000 deaths annually could be attributed to lead exposure.”
Interestingly, even though there has been evidence of these harmful effects, many health professionals are only now beginning to understand the severity of this issue.
“The most surprising finding to me is the multi-decade disconnect between public health scientists, who proved over and over again that toxic metals were related to cardiovascular disease, and cardiologists, who only now accept the connection and the validity of environmental cardiology,” Gervasio A. Lamas, M.D., FAHA, chairman of medicine and chief of the Columbia University Division of Cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, told Healthline.
The next phase of research is to determine if a drug called EDTA, which increases lead and cadmium excretion from the body, reduces or prevents cardiac events, Lamas added. In 2012 in JAMA we showed this to be true, in the TACT trial. The confirmatory study will show results within the year.
Experts are still learning about the science behind this connection.
“This is complex, and the scientific community may not fully understand the science behind the mechanism,” said Dr. Garry Winkler, MD, an Emergency Medicine physician and Medical Toxicologist at UTHealth Houston. “Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic can mimic normal metals that our body uses, thus leading to enzymes not working correctly, and some heavy metals also interfere with DNA/RNA function.”
The science and pathophysiology behind how cancer or cardiovascular disease occurs is still being studied. For example, one mechanism is that arsenic itself inhibits nitric oxide synthase in the lining of blood vessels, Winkler explained. This leads to a reduction of the generation and bioavailability of nitric oxide limiting the dilation of blood vessels. Ultimately, this leads to high blood pressure or hypertension and coronary artery disease.
“These non-essential metals trigger a number of harmful processes in our bodies, including inflammation, that can ultimately cause diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries),” said Herb Aronow, M.D., Medical Director of Heart & Vascular Services at Henry Ford Health. “As a result, exposure to these metals may lead to heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and limb loss.”
The main way people are exposed is due to contaminated air, water, and soil.
“While it sounds simple, avoiding exposure can be difficult for patients and may involve moving. It is typically difficult to decontaminate the environment,” Winkler stated. “If someone is concerned for toxicity from these metals, then they should have their environment tested for heavy metals. Human testing should be performed with urine testing and not hair samples.”
Worldwide, the biggest cause of elevated arsenic levels is due to water from wells; exposure from foods tends to be minimal. Lead exposure is most frequently caused by contaminated soil around homes due to contamination from lead paint, Winkler explained.
Lead can also be found in herbal supplements from foreign countries (eg Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medications), and some occupations are also at increased exposure risk. Environmental exposure to cadmium generally occurs through the consumption of foods grown in cadmium-contaminated areas, Winkler added. Welders, solderers, and jewelry workers who use cadmium-containing alloys are at risk for cadmium toxicity as well.
“The most impactful interventions should be enacted by governmental agencies as the result of legislation,” Aronow stated. “Such interventions could limit allowable amounts of metal contamination in air, water food and soil, and monitor for these metals to protect our communities. People are encouraged to let their respective congresspersons know how important this issue is to them and their communities.”
The study authors also stated that addressing metal exposure in these populations may provide a strategy to reduce cardiovascular disease disparities and advance environmental justice.
“I agree with this statement,” said Winkler. “Cardiovascular disease prevalence, incidence, and disparities are more pronounced in low socioeconomic areas. The reason for this is complex, but areas of environmental contamination are also typically higher in low socioeconomic areas. Addressing environmental contamination and exposure is a strategy to reduce cardiovascular disease disparities and advance environmental justice/equity.”
The most polluted areas tend to be the poorest or more disadvantaged areas, Lamas explained. Making an effort to “clean up” these metal-polluted areas will, or should, reduce the differences in vascular disease between rich and poor.
According to a new scientific statement released by the American Heart Association, chronic exposure to contaminant metals found in household products, air, water, soil and food is linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
If you’re concerned about metal toxicity in your area, you can have your environment tested.
Experts agree that to reduce cardiovascular disease disparities and advance environmental justice, it’s important to address metal exposure in low socioeconomic areas.