Mercury. Mold. Lead. Sometimes there are good reasons for you to be worried about them.
But some health-care practitioners are capitalizing on those concerns. “They push tests for mold intoxication or say you need to have the mercury in your teeth removed,” says Anthony Pizon, chief of medical toxicology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
They claim that exposure to even tiny amounts of those substances can cause fatigue, heart disease and other problems. “But those fears and recommendations are often based on little solid research and go far beyond what the science warrants,” Pizon says.
The American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology recently identified 10 questionable tests and treatments as part of the Choosing Wisely initiative led by the ABIM Foundation and Consumer Reports. Here are three notable examples:
Removing mercury fillings.
Mercury can damage your brain and kidneys, and it poses other risks, especially to children. But the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration concluded that the amount found in dental fillings isn’t enough to harm adults or children age 6 and older.
“You get exposed to more mercury by removing fillings than if you just left them in,” says Jeffrey Brent, a clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora. And drilling to remove fillings can weaken your teeth, which might lead to more expensive dental work.
Bottom line: It’s fine to have a filling removed because it’s loose or before other dental work. And if you don’t want a mercury filling, it’s okay to ask for one made of ceramic or composite resin. But there’s no reason to have an existing filling removed just to avoid mercury.
Testing hair for toxins.
Certain practitioners suggest testing hair samples for substances such as arsenic, lead and mercury. The tests can cost more than $100, aren’t often covered by insurance and can be unreliable because labs use different ranges to determine what levels are worrisome. For example, a study by the California Department of Health found that a healthy person’s hair sample that was sent to six labs came back with six different results. Other studies have had similar results.
Another problem: If metal poisoning is detected, some practitioners may recommend chelation therapy — injections of chemicals that bind with the offending substance, causing the patient to excrete it. That technique is helpful in real cases of metal poisoning, such as high blood levels of lead from eating paint chips. But metal poisoning is not reliably determined by a hair sample.
Bottom line: If your doctor suspects metal poisoning, she should order blood tests and, if necessary, refer you to a board-certified toxicologist for treatment, Pizon says.
Treating ‘mold intoxification.’
Some people really are allergic to mold. In them, the substance can cause sneezing, coughing, wheezing and itchy or runny eyes. But some providers blame mold for vague symptoms such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating, and recommend blood or urine tests to check for “mold intoxification.”
There’s no hard evidence that mold causes any of those symptoms, Brent says. For example, a study from Oregon Health & Science University found that the symptoms experienced by most people who think they have mold toxicity might actually be caused by depression, tobacco use, sinusitis or other health problems.
Bottom line: See an allergist for testing, and consult other specialists to rule out the conditions noted above.
You might be tempted to drink water to excess, give yourself an enema or even try what’s called a colonic — during which a machine pumps water into your rectum through a tube — in an effort to flush toxins from your body.
But be careful. Those practices don’t work and can even be dangerous. A 2011 Georgetown University review of 20 studies found that colon cleansing offered no clear health benefit and, in a few cases, could lead to cramping, kidney failure and death.
Your body does a good job of getting rid of toxins naturally through urine and waste elimination, and actions to speed those processes along offer no added advantage.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.