Published on: August 26, 2013
by David DiSalvo for Forbes:
Every so often research comes out raising concerns about the level of metals, like lead, copper and aluminum, in a range of products we consume every day. A recent New York Times article stoked fears anew about metal levels in lipstick, particularly lead and aluminum. Additional research is pointing to a linkage between copper and Alzheimer’s disease—especially unnerving since copper is found in trace amounts in several common consumables, including tap water.
So, should we be worried?
The answer (as is so often the case when it comes to correlative research) is yes and no.
Let’s take the “no” part first. The research we’re talking about has found correlations—not causation—between consuming varying levels of metals and unhealthy outcomes. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for allowable amounts of metals in foods and other products—the “allowable” level is predicated on research showing that the metal in question is safe in sufficiently small quantities. This is even true of metals we unquestionably know to be toxic to human cells, like metallic arsenic, which is present in small amounts in tap water just about everywhere in the country.
So if we’re talking about levels of metals consumed on average, on any given day, there’s no definitive reason to be concerned.
Now the “yes” part.
The issue with metals isn’t really how much is consumed on average, but how much copper, lead, mercury, aluminum, chromium, cadmium, etc. is building up in our bodies over time. The recent study that shows a link between copper and Alzheimer’s isn’t suggesting that too much copper in drinking water, nuts or shellfish immediately causes problems—it’s indicating that a build-up of copper in the brain over time damages the blood-brain barrier, which in turn causes a toxic accumulation of the protein amyloid beta, a by-product of cellular activity that appears to play a major role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Most amyloid beta is normally removed by the body, but this study showed that copper also handicapped this normal removal process, causing the build-up of amyloid plaques to accelerate. (It should be noted that the study was conducted on mice, not humans.)
The most troubling part of these findings is that it didn’t take very much copper to trigger the results. Researchers said they used one-tenth of the water quality standards for copper established by the EPA over a three-month period. “These are very low levels of copper, equivalent to what people would consume in a normal diet,” said Rashid Deane, Ph.D., a research professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurosurgery and lead author of the study.
The analysis, then, shifts from quantities consumed “on average”—something that can be determined—to quantities that accumulate in our bodies over time, something far harder to nail down.
The same analysis applies to trace amounts of lead found in lipstick (just one of many metals in lipstick). While it’s true that the amount found in a normal application of lipstick isn’t a concern, we can’t be so sure that the amount of lead absorbed by the body over time isn’t dangerous.
We know that lead is extremely dangerous to the developing brains of children. Relatively low lead blood-levels in kids have been linked to a range of bad outcomes, including lowered IQ. While the research isn’t as clear about what elevated lead levels do to the adult brain, there’s no question that too much of it is toxic to the human body. And because it’s stored in our bones, lead is re-released into the blood over time potentially causing damage for years after initial exposure.
The concern over lipstick is that there really isn’t such a thing as a “normal application” because users tend to reapply it throughout the day. If, hypothetically, someone applies lipstick an average of 12 times a day, that’s a lot of lipstick during the course of a year, and a massive amount over the course of several years. We have no way of knowing how much lead the average lipstick-wearing person ingests over time, but we have every reason to think that it is building up in the body.
Coming back to the “yes and no” balance—we of course have to be careful about not falling into the alarmist trap. Metals are ubiquitous; we couldn’t avoid them if we tried, nor would that be a good idea because several of them also positively contribute to our health. Copper, for instance, is important to healthy nerve growth, bone formation and hormone secretion. The issue is how much of these metals we are exposed to beyond safe thresholds over time.
Research will continue to chip away at answers, but in the meantime the best course of action is to raise awareness (not alarm) of potential hazards and act accordingly. Avoiding excess exposure by using a water filter and applying a little less lipstick aren’t such radical measures, but they could be important to our health in the long run.
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