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Lead & Mercury

Exposure to lead and mercury can harm health. Exposures can come occur through food, air, water, soil or various types of products.

Health Impacts of Lead and Mercury

Lead and mercury are heavy metals that may be present in the environment, for example in food, water, or household items. Though levels of heavy metals in the environment are generally low in British Columbia, even small exposures can be harmful to health over long periods. Babies and children are at particular risk due to their small size and developing brains. 

  • Lead may be found in old paint, construction materials, industrial sites, and some imported cosmetics or herbal medications
  • Mercury may be found in certain fish and shellfish species, industrial sites, and some imported cosmetics or herbal medications. Very small amounts are found in compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Provincial Lead and Mercury Monitoring

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) helps health authorities investigate sources of lead and mercury that may be hazardous to public health. BCCDC also supports the BC Ministry of Health in the development of effective policies and strategies to reduce exposures to lead and mercury.

One important tool is surveillance of lead and mercury levels in British Columbia. Like positive test results for infectious diseases that require a public health response, results of blood or urine tests for lead or mercury are reported to the BCCDC. The BCCDC uses these reports to ensure sources of lead or mercury are addressed, to ensure that people with elevated lead or mercury in their bodies are appropriately treated, and to evaluate the impact of programs or polices meant to reduce heavy metals in the environment. 

As the surveillance program proceeds and we learn more, additional information will be posted on this site.

Exposure Concerns

If you are concerned about exposure to lead or mercury, please contact your primary care provider. Diagnosis and treatment requires the care of a qualified health professional. Over-the-counter detox products do not treat lead or mercury exposure.

The BC Drug and Poison Information Centre is an excellent resource for more information about exposures to lead or mercury. (http://www.dpic.org/)  

Printable Information on Lead Exposure


What is lead? 
Lead is a toxic heavy metal with many uses in industry, construction, and manufacturing. Though it is no longer commonly found in consumer products, you might still be exposed to it through older products and homes, or contamination of the environment through water, dust, and soil.  

Why should I be concerned? 
Lead causes serious health problems. The greatest risk is during fetal and early childhood development because lead is toxic to the brain and nervous systems, even at low levels. It can impair cognitive and social development in children and affect fetal brain development before birth if a pregnant person is exposed to lead. 

In adults, lead causes damage throughout the body, most seriously to the brain, kidneys, and heart, and can also cause high blood pressure and anemia.   

Very high levels of lead exposure (e.g., due to consuming products contaminated with large amounts of lead) can cause severe and sudden illness.  

Though lead levels in the Canadian population and the environment have declined significantly since the 1970’s, evidence indicates that levels previously thought to be ‘normal’ still cause harm. We now know there is no safe level of lead in the blood. 

Who is at risk? 
Children under the age of five are most at risk of significant health effects and most likely to engage in behaviour that exposes them to lead (putting things in their mouth and crawling on the ground). People who are pregnant should also be cautious about lead exposure since it can affect the developing baby.  

Individuals more likely to be exposed to lead are those who live in areas with industries such as mining or smelting (particularly people that directly work with lead, and their families), those who live in older and un-renovated homes, and those with hobbies that involve lead such as hunting or fishing.  

How could I be exposed and how can I avoid exposure? 
Lead has been removed from most consumer products because of its health effects. However, British Columbians are still exposed to lead from some sources. Some examples are dust from industries that use lead, degraded paint in older homes, and privately imported health products or cosmetics. 

Drinking water in Canada is required to have very low levels of lead when delivered to consumers, and building codes restrict the use of lead in plumbing that carries drinking water. If you live in an older home, replacing your fixtures or flushing your taps before drinking can help to minimize any possible lead in drinking water.  

For a comprehensive list of potential sources of lead and how to minimize exposure, please visit Health Canada's frequently asked questions about lead. 

What are the symptoms of lead exposure and how is it diagnosed? 
High blood lead levels are often asymptomatic, meaning you may not feel any differently, but even low levels can cause harm. A blood test is needed to determine the level of lead in your body. 

In the most serious poisonings, adults may experience changes to how their skin feels, abdominal cramps and an altered mental state such as confusion. 

If you think you could have been exposed to lead, including through plumbing, renovations, or other sources, speak to your health care provider to decide whether you should get tested. 


How are lead exposures detected and investigated? 
If you have lead detected in your blood, your health care provider will determine where you were exposed and how best to reduce your exposure. They may work with public health staff to determine if any other people might be at risk from the same source.  Laboratory tests for lead levels in BC are also confidentially reported to the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). This surveillance system allows experts to assess which areas have higher rates of lead exposure and alerts public health staff to clusters of lead exposure that might need to be investigated. 

How is lead exposure treated? 
Preventing exposure to lead is the best way to avoid harm. If exposure has already occurred, removing ongoing exposures is the most important treatment strategy. This gives your body a chance to remove the lead on its own. 

Depending on your blood results, your treating health care provider may recommend other strategies for helping to remove lead from your body, and you will likely need to be retested for lead in your blood over the weeks and months following diagnosis. 

 

Printable Information on Mercury Exposure


‎What is mercury? 
Mercury is a toxic metal found naturally in our environment. Human activities such as smelting and burning fossil fuels can release mercury into the air, water, and soil. 

Why should I be concerned? 
Even small amounts of mercury exposure can result in negative health effects. The type of mercury, the amount, the age of the person and the route of exposure all change how toxic the mercury can be and how you’re affected.  

Who is most at risk? 
People who are pregnant (and their babies) may be more at risk from mercury exposure, because mercury crosses the placenta and can affect fetal development. Mercury primarily affects the brain and nervous system which are vulnerable in babies due to their rapid growth. 

Children are also more likely to engage in behaviours that could expose them to mercury (crawling on the floor and putting things in their mouths) and are at risk due to the accumulative effects of mercury exposure over a lifetime. 

Other adults who are at risk from mercury poisoning include populations who eat large fish as a key part of their diet as mercury accumulates in the tissues of these fish.  

Where can it be found? 
The greatest source of mercury exposure is through eating certain fish and shellfish. 

Products such as skin lighteners and some traditional medicines may also contain mercury, as do some dental fillings. 

Most consumer products are now mercury-free though older items may still contain mercury, such as thermometers, fluorescent lighting and electrical equipment. 

Industrial or workplace exposure can occur, usually through inhalation of mercury vapours, though your employer can give you more information about your risk. Visit WorkSafeBC for more information: https://www.worksafebc.com/en/health-safety/hazards-exposures/mercury  

How can I avoid mercury?
The most important and easiest way is to carefully consider your fish intake. Fish is a great source of high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It is an important part of a well-balanced diet, particularly in pescatarians and coastal communities. 

However, some fish contain high levels of mercury and should be eaten in moderation. 

Due to the way mercury is stored, larger fish that eat a lot of smaller fish contain higher levels of mercury. These include tuna, shark and swordfish.  

Health Canada has recommended limits on the consumption of predatory fish for people who are or may become pregnant or are breastfeeding. These limits are 150g per month of predatory fish, and 300g per week of canned albacore (white) tuna. 

Salmon and herring are two examples of good choices for maximising omega-3 fatty acid intake while minimising your mercury consumption. More information about mercury in fish can be found at HealthlinkBC’s website

Other ways to avoid exposure to mercury are to be careful when handling items that may contain mercury, such as old thermometers and electrical equipment, and avoid skin lightening creams. 

If liquid mercury is spilled, don’t vacuum the material as this creates more dangerous mercury vapour. Wear protective equipment including shoes, keep children away and refer to the NCCEH guide below on cleaning up mercury. 

You may need to contact your local health authority for assistance in cleaning up spills. 

What should I do if I break a thermometer? 
Elemental mercury, the fluid found in old thermometers, forms a gas with no smell or colour when spilled. By following the appropriate steps, it can be cleaned up safely. Please visit:  https://ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Small_Mercury_Spills_Clean-up_Oct_2015.pdf 

Should I be worried about my dental fillings? 
Dental fillings do not release a significant amount of mercury and if intact and undamaged fillings do not need to be replaced.  

You can ask your dentist for more information about dental amalgams and their alternatives. 

What are the symptoms of mercury exposure and how is it diagnosed? 
In British Columbia, most exposures to mercury are at low enough levels that they do not cause noticeable symptoms in adults. However, the mercury may still cause harm. It can cause damage to your lungs, kidneys and gut, along with causing mood and cognition changes. At higher levels, mercury can cause paralysis, cognitive difficulties, and other damage to the brain and nervous system.  

In newborns, exposure to mercury while in the womb may result in impaired development, particularly of the nervous system.  

Mercury exposure is diagnosed by blood or urine tests. The level of mercury will indicate your risk of illness and the next steps that need to be taken. 

If you think you or your child may have been exposed to mercury, visit your local health care provider to decide if you should be tested. You can also call the BC Drug and Poison Information Centre (DPIC) 24/7 at 1-800-567-8911. 

If you were exposed to mercury in your workplace, contact your employer or WorkSafeBC for further guidance. 

How does BC protect the public against mercury? 
The results of all blood and urine tests for mercury in BC are confidentially reported to the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). This surveillance system allows experts 

to assess which areas have higher rates of mercury exposure and toxicity and investigate any unusual causes of mercury exposure in the community.  

The provincial government, along with the federal government, works to develop local and international policies to reduce the amount of mercury in our environment. They will also provide advisories on specific fish breeds and fishing locations that may increase your risk. 

How is it treated? 
Preventing exposure is the best way to avoid harm. If exposure has already occurred, removing ongoing exposures is the most important treatment strategy. This will give your body a chance to remove the excess mercury on its own. 

Depending on your blood and urine results, your treating health care provider may recommend other strategies for helping to remove mercury from the body, and your mercury levels will likely need to be retested in the weeks and months following diagnosis. 

National Heavy Metals Publications

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