Patterns of mercury exposure in children

During early childhood, mercury exposure can disrupt your health and development even in amounts that may seem negligible. I covered mercury’s effects during preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding in the previous newsletter. This newsletter picks up where the last one left off, discussing common effects of mercury on children as well as behavioral and physical patterns. This is the fourth in my ongoing newsletter series on mercury. As such, it builds on the previous three, which you can find here. While this newsletter provides some review from the previous ones, make sure you look at the first three in the series for additional information.

Earliest exposuresmercury in children

Everyone has some mercury body burden. Our children’s mercury burden begins before birth. During pregnancy, mercury in the mother’s body crosses the placenta and accumulates in the fetus. The higher the mother’s mercury burden, the higher the fetal exposure levels. Thus, some babies come into the world with a staggering load. The most significant exposure sources during pregnancy and breastfeeding are the mother’s amalgam (“silver”) fillings and fish consumption.

In addition to crossing the placenta, mercury is excreted in the breast milk. Does this mean that mothers with amalgam fillings should not breastfeed? Not at all! In fact, whenever breastfeeding is possible, it confers enormous benefits. However, this is not the time to remove, replace or install amalgam fillings.

If you are a pregnant or breastfeeding mother with amalgam fillings, you can limit your baby’s mercury exposure by following a few easy steps. Refrain from gum chewing, which significantly increases offgassing of mercury. Additionally, limit sources of electromagnetic radiation such as cell phones or cordless phones, which increase the release of mercury from amalgam fillings.

Regardless of your dental status, limit fish consumption during pregnancy, breastfeeding and early childhood. Focus  on low-mercury fish such as wild-caught salmon and sardines. Along the same lines, avoid high-mercury fish such as tuna and swordfish.

Limiting mercury exposure during childhood

As children grow, it is important to continue limiting their exposure to mercury as much as possible. Practically speaking, this means avoiding or limiting the following exposures to your child:

  • Amalgam fillings
  • Compact fluorescent lightbulbs
  • Some over-the-counter products such as some nasal sprays and ear drops – always check the ingredients
  • Living or playing near a crematorium or coal-fired power plant
  • Spending more time than is strictly necessary in environments where mercury is used, such as dental offices, chemistry labs, etc.
  • Vintage household objects that contain mercury, such as the old-style thermometers and cinnabar-based jewelry
  • Religious and healing rituals that employ mercury (for example, in the form of azogue – elemental mercury sold in botànica shops)
  • Vaccines that contain thimerosal as a preservative or in the vaccine preparation process. These include some of the influenza, meningococcal, tetanus toxoid and other vaccines on the market – always ask to see the full list of ingredients

Patterns associated with mercury in children

Mercury can contribute to a wide variety of childhood behaviors and conditions. I have a few caveats before moving forward. First, due to the many effects of mercury on the body, the list provided here is not comprehensive. Second, mercury isn’t the only explanation for the symptoms or conditions I cover. In other words, this article is by no means diagnostic. Third, all children, like all adults, have some mercury in their body. The amount of mercury in the body varies from child to child. So does the ability of each child to detoxify, as well as the level of sensitivity to mercury’s toxic effects.

Some common childhood conditions associated with mercury exposure include autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, tic disorder, autoimmune conditions and nocturnal enuresis (bedwetting). Mercury contributes to these conditions by causing massive oxidative stress and nutrient imbalances. These can affect neuroendocrine health, immune function, gut health, and behavior. The nutrients most depleted by mercury differ from person to person. However, I always see low magnesium and frequently see low zinc, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin C. Lithium is sometimes very low. Copper and iron are often dysregulated, and either may be high or low, depending on the individual.

Appearance and behavior: general observations

Each child has his or her own physical and personality traits, favorite activities and aversions. The following is my compilation of common physical and behavioral characteristics of children with a mercury problem. The compilation relies on scientific literature as well as direct observation of affected children and reports by parents. Again, these observations are not diagnostic. Nonetheless, if you have a child who exhibits many of these traits, mercury may indeed be an issue.

Energy, sleep and attention

Children with a mercury problem may be very low-energy or excessively active. They may be inexplicably fearful or anxious or suffer from phobias or night terrors. Some are constantly in motion, possibly with repetitive or obsessive habits such as chewing on a shirt sleeve, nails, pencils, etc. These children may be night owls and/or slow starters in the morning. They may sleep very little, or may sleep excessively. They may wake at the smallest sound, or may sleep so deeply that they wet the bed. Some are unfocused or inattentive and may act out or zone out at school.

Common physical complaints

Digestive, skin, hair and nail health may suffer. Affected children may have a history of reflux, allergies, constipation or diarrhea, or complain of tummy aches and nausea. Parents often note excessive cradle cap, psoriasis, eczema and other skin problems. Their fingernails may have small white spots resembling snowflakes, or the nails may lack the white crescent shape (lunula) at the base. Hair and nails are sometimes fragile or slow-growing. Some children complain of dry,  itchy or “hot” feet. The skin on the inside of the heels may be dry and flaky. They may sweat and/or salivate excessively. Some parents note strange body odors coming from the skin, breath, sweat or scalp.

Some children are uncoordinated, with poor balance or poor fine motor coordination. They may take longer than their peers to learn to crawl and walk. Some struggle to learn to ride a bike or tie their shoes. Poor handwriting is common. Some affected children have low muscle tone. Some have picky eating habits, multiple food sensitivities or unusual cravings for certain foods. They may complain of pain on their tongue or ringing in their ears. Some are very sensitive to changes in weather conditions. Mercury-affected children are often extremely sensitive to physical and emotional stimuli, including noise, light, temperature changes and real or perceived criticism.

“Annoying and annoyed”

Some mercury-affected children struggle socially. Some are quite shy; others may be weepy, moody or easily angered. They may come across as insensitive towards others.  Conversely, they may seem overly sensitive to what others say and do. They may have difficulty interpreting social cues. They may be extremely gifted in some areas and seemingly unable to learn in other areas. For example, they may have extraordinary verbal intelligence but seem incapable of grasping basic mathematical concepts. They are often very easily annoyed by others, but also tend to have behaviors that annoy others.

Parenting struggles

Parents of very mercury-toxic children report that their children can be difficult to parent. This is often due to temper tantrums, sudden rages, deep bouts of depression and difficulty listening to and following directions. Parents of these children often feel inadequate, exhausted and spread very thin. Some feel like bad parents, unable to understand how other parents around them “hold it together” so much better than they do.

Remember that children with mercury toxicity almost always have at least one parent with mercury toxicity. These children struggle and suffer to act normally but can’t. One tearful mother of a gorgeous-faced mercury-poisoned toddler sobbed during our first session: “I love my son dearly, but sometimes I look at him and feel like I’m still waiting to meet him and discover who he is.”

If you recognize your child in this description, he or she may have a mercury problem. Again, these symptoms can be caused by other factors, such as nutritional deficiencies, parasitic infections or exposure to other toxic metals. I can help you assess whether your child’s symptoms are likely due to mercury or to other underlying issues. When I work with mercury-affected children, write a step-by-step nutrition and lifestyle plan to support the child and family.

Rebalancing minerals with Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis

The tool I use most extensively to asses mineral balance and screen for toxic metals is a hair tissue mineral analysis (HTMA). When properly interpreted, an HTMA provides information about various functional areas of health. These include thyroid and adrenal status, hormonal balance, blood sugar handling, and the need for specific vitamins and minerals in the diet. Because mercury can greatly affect the transport of minerals, this test is particularly helpful in children and adults with known or suspected exposures.

HTMAs need to be interpreted correctly, because the minerals and metals that show up on the test are not always reflective of levels in the body. The toxic metals in the child’s body may or not show up on the first hair test. Thus it is important to recognize the “footprint” that hidden toxic metals, especially mercury, leave on the mineral system. I have seen and interpreted hundreds of hair tests in children and adults and have extensive experience with the art and science of hair test interpretation.

If you have any questions or would like to schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation to talk about mercury exposure in your family, contact me.


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