Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?

Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?
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Those who have higher vitamin C levels tend to have less lead in their bloodstream, but what happens when you give people vitamin C supplements to put it to the test?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Even if a nutritional manipulation is proven effective in reducing blood lead levels, reliance on such an intervention places most of the burden for prevention on those most affected and least responsible for the underlying environmental causes…. Nutritional interventions, therefore, must never substitute for efforts to reduce lead exposure to safe[r] levels. On the other hand, when used as an adjunct…, some nutritional changes may prove to have benefits beyond…lead toxicity.” For example, vitamin C-rich foods may help with a bunch of things, in addition to perhaps influencing lead toxicity through an effect on absorption of lead, elimination of lead, transport within the body, tissue binding, or just helping ameliorate some of the damage. But, based on what?

Well, in 1939, a remarkable study was published, entitled “Vitamin C Treatment in Lead Poisoning,” in which 17 lead industry workers were given 100mg of vitamin C a day, the amount found in one or two oranges, and “with practically all of them, there was a marked gain in vigor, color of skin, cheerfulness, [their blood], appetite, and ability to sleep….” Now, they were chosen because they seemed in pretty bad shape, maybe even had scurvy; so, no wonder a little vitamin C helped. But vitamin C is an antioxidant, and oxidation is “an important mechanism underlying lead toxicity”; so, it’s conceivable that it may have mediated some of the harm. But the vitamin C didn’t appear to just reduce the damage from the lead, but reduced the lead itself. This is the amount of lead a painter was peeing out over a month after starting 200mg of vitamin C a day—a five-fold drop, suggesting he was absorbing less of the lead into his body. And, he was one of three painters they tried it on, and evidently all their levels dropped. The researchers concluded that those exposed to lead should be advised to include in their diet plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, such as tomatoes, citrus, spinach, turnips, bell peppers, cantaloupe, etc.

Now, this was just three painters, and they didn’t have a control group of painters that didn’t take vitamin C. So, maybe everyone’s lead levels would have dropped regardless, for some reason, or it was just a coincidence. You don’t know until you put it to the test.

These original data were so compelling that other researchers decided to replicate the study. I mean, if it actually worked, they could start handing out grapefruits at the factory door. The earlier study didn’t have a good control group, but they weren’t going to make that same mistake this time. Half the group got 100mg of vitamin C a day, not just for a month but for a year. The other group got nothing, and “[c]areful study of [the] group…failed to reveal any effect [of vitamin C] on the lead concentration in [their] blood…or urine.” “No difference…in [their] physical condition,” no changes in their blood work; and so, “No reason…for recommending the use of [vitamin C] to minimize effects of lead absorption.” Bummer. Oh, it looked so promising.

Whenever I study a topic, I try to read the research chronologically, so as to experience the discoveries as they happened throughout history, but I was so tempted at this point to just jump to a recent review to see what had happened in the intervening 74 years since this was published, but I didn’t want to spoiler alert myself. There were in vitro studies where they dripped antioxidants on lead-exposed cells, and it seemed to help. So, they jumped on the cantaloupe bandwagon too, but these were test tube studies.

The first population study was published in 1999, and they did find that those with high vitamin C levels in their blood tended to have lower lead levels. Youths with the highest vitamin C levels had a nearly 90% lower prevalence of having elevated blood lead levels, compared to those with the lowest C. Now, this was a cross-sectional study, just a snapshot in time; so, we don’t know if the vitamin C caused a drop in lead. Maybe the lead caused a drop in vitamin C. Lead is a pro-oxidant; so, maybe it just ate up the vitamin C. And hey, who has higher vitamin C levels? Those who can afford to have higher vitamin C levels—those who eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Maybe the lower vitamin C levels were just a proxy for being poor, and that was the real reason for their higher lead levels. Lots of good reasons to be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we should be eating more spinach regardless. But, it would be nice to know if it actually helps with lead poisoning or not. And, to know that, we need to put it to the test.

Unfortunately, most of the published interventions are like this: what are the “[e]ffects of dietary vitamin C supplementation on lead-treated sea cucumbers”? Well, that’s not very helpful. And, there’s a surprising number of articles on the effects of C supplementation on mouse testicles, but that’s because lead may impair male fertility. Lead workers appear to have a reduced likelihood of fathering children. This may, in part, be due to “oxidative stress.” So, how about giving an antioxidant, like vitamin C, and putting it to the testes? No, not rat testes. No, not frog testes. No, not crab testes (I didn’t even know crabs had testicles). Here we go, the “[c]linical relevance of vitamin C among lead-exposed infertile men”—human men, which I’ll cover, next.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Icons created by James Keuning from the Noun Project.

Image credit: Jon Bunting via Flickr. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“Even if a nutritional manipulation is proven effective in reducing blood lead levels, reliance on such an intervention places most of the burden for prevention on those most affected and least responsible for the underlying environmental causes…. Nutritional interventions, therefore, must never substitute for efforts to reduce lead exposure to safe[r] levels. On the other hand, when used as an adjunct…, some nutritional changes may prove to have benefits beyond…lead toxicity.” For example, vitamin C-rich foods may help with a bunch of things, in addition to perhaps influencing lead toxicity through an effect on absorption of lead, elimination of lead, transport within the body, tissue binding, or just helping ameliorate some of the damage. But, based on what?

Well, in 1939, a remarkable study was published, entitled “Vitamin C Treatment in Lead Poisoning,” in which 17 lead industry workers were given 100mg of vitamin C a day, the amount found in one or two oranges, and “with practically all of them, there was a marked gain in vigor, color of skin, cheerfulness, [their blood], appetite, and ability to sleep….” Now, they were chosen because they seemed in pretty bad shape, maybe even had scurvy; so, no wonder a little vitamin C helped. But vitamin C is an antioxidant, and oxidation is “an important mechanism underlying lead toxicity”; so, it’s conceivable that it may have mediated some of the harm. But the vitamin C didn’t appear to just reduce the damage from the lead, but reduced the lead itself. This is the amount of lead a painter was peeing out over a month after starting 200mg of vitamin C a day—a five-fold drop, suggesting he was absorbing less of the lead into his body. And, he was one of three painters they tried it on, and evidently all their levels dropped. The researchers concluded that those exposed to lead should be advised to include in their diet plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, such as tomatoes, citrus, spinach, turnips, bell peppers, cantaloupe, etc.

Now, this was just three painters, and they didn’t have a control group of painters that didn’t take vitamin C. So, maybe everyone’s lead levels would have dropped regardless, for some reason, or it was just a coincidence. You don’t know until you put it to the test.

These original data were so compelling that other researchers decided to replicate the study. I mean, if it actually worked, they could start handing out grapefruits at the factory door. The earlier study didn’t have a good control group, but they weren’t going to make that same mistake this time. Half the group got 100mg of vitamin C a day, not just for a month but for a year. The other group got nothing, and “[c]areful study of [the] group…failed to reveal any effect [of vitamin C] on the lead concentration in [their] blood…or urine.” “No difference…in [their] physical condition,” no changes in their blood work; and so, “No reason…for recommending the use of [vitamin C] to minimize effects of lead absorption.” Bummer. Oh, it looked so promising.

Whenever I study a topic, I try to read the research chronologically, so as to experience the discoveries as they happened throughout history, but I was so tempted at this point to just jump to a recent review to see what had happened in the intervening 74 years since this was published, but I didn’t want to spoiler alert myself. There were in vitro studies where they dripped antioxidants on lead-exposed cells, and it seemed to help. So, they jumped on the cantaloupe bandwagon too, but these were test tube studies.

The first population study was published in 1999, and they did find that those with high vitamin C levels in their blood tended to have lower lead levels. Youths with the highest vitamin C levels had a nearly 90% lower prevalence of having elevated blood lead levels, compared to those with the lowest C. Now, this was a cross-sectional study, just a snapshot in time; so, we don’t know if the vitamin C caused a drop in lead. Maybe the lead caused a drop in vitamin C. Lead is a pro-oxidant; so, maybe it just ate up the vitamin C. And hey, who has higher vitamin C levels? Those who can afford to have higher vitamin C levels—those who eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Maybe the lower vitamin C levels were just a proxy for being poor, and that was the real reason for their higher lead levels. Lots of good reasons to be eating more fruits and vegetables, and we should be eating more spinach regardless. But, it would be nice to know if it actually helps with lead poisoning or not. And, to know that, we need to put it to the test.

Unfortunately, most of the published interventions are like this: what are the “[e]ffects of dietary vitamin C supplementation on lead-treated sea cucumbers”? Well, that’s not very helpful. And, there’s a surprising number of articles on the effects of C supplementation on mouse testicles, but that’s because lead may impair male fertility. Lead workers appear to have a reduced likelihood of fathering children. This may, in part, be due to “oxidative stress.” So, how about giving an antioxidant, like vitamin C, and putting it to the testes? No, not rat testes. No, not frog testes. No, not crab testes (I didn’t even know crabs had testicles). Here we go, the “[c]linical relevance of vitamin C among lead-exposed infertile men”—human men, which I’ll cover, next.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Icons created by James Keuning from the Noun Project.

Image credit: Jon Bunting via Flickr. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

I’m always conflicted about doing these kinds of videos. I can imagine some who just want me to “give them the answer.” That natural impulse is exploited, though, by those with vested and commercial interests. This is a problem with science in general, but perhaps particularly in nutrition. When it comes to something as life-or-death important as what to feed ourselves and our families, we shouldn’t just follow someone’s opinion or beliefs on the matter. We should demand to see the science. That’s what I try to do: present the available data as fairly and even-handedly as possible, and let you make up your own mind. You can imagine how easily someone could cherry-pick one or two of those studies, and present a distorted but compelling case for or against vitamin C supplements, in this case. That’s why I feel it’s important to present each study in its historical context. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion in Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?

For those of you thinking, “Why should I care about lead? I don’t eat paint chips or use leaded gasoline. And anyways, what’s the big deal?” Check out my full series of lead videos for how we got into this mess, and some of the ways we can dig ourselves out:

And for those of you saying: “Another lead video?!” Don’t worry; only one more to go. :)

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

26 responses to “Can Vitamin C Help with Lead Poisoning?

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  1. As per his explanation in the “Doctor’s Note” above, I think we need more people like Dr G who present scientific findings in a balanced manner, taking into consideration the historical context of the studies. Another good reason of many, that I visit this website daily!




    4
    1. Please read the works of Dr Thomas Levy, Dr Rath, and Linus Pauling. Brilliant chemist and doctors. Also they are on utube. We all need large amounts of vit c as our body doesn’t make it




      3
  2. Very unfortunate they did not test “therapeutic” doses of Vitamin C instead of dietary sized doses. Many thousands of milligrams/day orally or even i.v. might have shown dramatically different results.




    4
    1. Yes, that is a critical point about studies of vitamins and other supplements. The proper methodology would include a range of dosages, from an average dietary intake (however established) to lower or higher.




      0
  3. Does anyone out there use a water filter at home? I’m looking for one that will filter out any lead in my drinking water. I rent, so I don’t want to permanently mount something under the sink. Brita doesn’t appeal to be because of the plastic carafe. I wonder what other people are doing…




    0
    1. Chloe,
      My understanding is that Brita filters will not filter out lead. I use Zero Water filters which I understand is supposed to filter out lead and more as it has a 5 stage filter. However it does have a plastic water pitcher. Try visiting their site for answers to your questions. If you do decide to try them, please be aware that they occasionally have ‘sales’ which is when I stock up on their filters at a significant discount. If I recall correctly, I bought 12 filters for $99 including shipping.




      2
    2. Unfortunately, you may need a reverse osmosis system on your drinking water if your municipal water is high in lead. They cost as little as $200 for those who are handy with undersink installation, but a wise first step may be having your drinking water tested (in the U.S., by your local water utility or state certified lab).




      3
      1. Darryl ,Yes reverse osmosis is the way to go , the cost per gallon is most likely the lowest ,even if you rent talk to your landlord they may pay for some of it or you could take it with you. we tried brita , which is ok , but didn’t reduce lead much , we tried zero as well. the taste of zero after about 8 pitchers of water is so disgusting , heavy chemical taste ,. not drinkable .we never tried berkley , might be ok.
        freetheanimals@mail.com




        1
  4. It amazes me how many people will take nutrition advice based on nothing more than someone’s opinion as long as it’s what they want to hear, but will reject what they don’t no matter how much actual proof there is!




    10
  5. So the new information I’ve gotten from this series so far is:

    1) Government & industry made a concerted effort to lie to the public for decades regarding toxicity of lead exposure. I almost wasn’t going to mention this one because I already knew it. But not to the extent that Dr. G has revealed. The devil is definitely in the details. We need to learn more about this so history doesn’t keep repeating itself. Education on nutrition that’s founded on evidence based facts brings power back to the people. And makes my libertarian heart sing!

    2) If we’re heading into a high lead environment, such as a shooting range, we should eat first. Even a doughnut will do the trick. (who ever would have thought that a doughnut would have a nutritionally redeeming quality)

    3) High fiber foods help flush out current or new exposure to lead but not necessarily previous exposures that may have migrated & settled into our organs & bones.

    4) Foods such as chlorella, cilantro, tomatoes & moringa MIGHT help flush out previous lead exposure from bones & whatnot, but we don’t know for sure because all the studies have been done on rats & mice & not on humans. (I’ll be eating more of all of them anyway just in case…)

    Now we’re waiting to hear whether or not vitamin C can do the trick. I love these cliffhangers…




    5
  6. hahah SPOILER ALERT!!!

    “RESULTS:
    Industrial workers showed a statistically significant increase in sperm motility (p<0.001), sperm total count (p<0.001), and a statistically significant decrease in abnormal sperm morphology (p<0.001) after vitamin C prophylaxis. The comet assay also showed similar results, where there is a statistically significant decrease in alkaline-labile sites and a statistically significant decrease in the mean tail length of the comet when compared to the control group (p<0.001) after vitamin C prophylaxis."
    SOURCES sited: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/%2022731648; accessed:5 June 2017




    2
  7. Unrelated (moderator – remove if necessary) – I’m a 7 yr vegan & have a query I’m not sure who to turn to about, & haven’t been able to find anything on NutritionFacts specifically dealing with this issue, so thought I’d throw it out here: the apparent phenomenon of low white blood cell count in vegans. Just got my annual bloods done & I’m at 3.7 (the paperwork provided by my Dr suggests the “normal” range is apparently between 4.0 & 11.0). This article by Jack Norris RD is illuminating – http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/wbc – & seems to suggest it’s not really anything to be alarmed about, & may indicate a positive in that vegans may tend to have less pathogens in our bodies to deal with, which necessitates fewer white blood cells to act as an immune response. I’ve been taking a quarter teaspoon of turmeric, a teaspoon of ground ginger & half a teaspoon of ground cloves daily to help with aching joints from hours of daily mountain biking (& associated crashes), & perhaps this has impacted the white-cell count in some way also?

    Any well-informed minds able to shed some evidence-based light on this? Thanks in advance!




    3
    1. Hi Michael,
      This is another case where being outside the “normal” range is a good thing. My WBC is routinely low.. 2.9 – 3.7. I was seeing Dr. Thomas Campbell at the time of the 2.9 value and he discussed it with Dr. Michael Klaper who said, do not do anything about it unless there are other symptoms like fevers, fatigue, change in energy, night sweats. I’ve also heard from several very healthy WFPB friends who are in the same situation. You are in good company.




      1
    2. I too have worked with Dr Michael Klaper, who has seen countless generations of vegans/WFPB eaters and he says that over the years of his practice the ‘normal’ level of WBCs on blood counts has increased (to reflect the increasingly inflamed, meat-eating and obese population norm). For example say 50 years ago, the normal bell curve upon which all standard normal lab values are developed, would have been lower for WBC, including your 3.7 as normal. Also to note, that roughly 4% of the population naturally occur outside of two standard deviations of the mean and are perfectly healthy, but the standard values only capture within the 2 SD of the mean. But going back to the cause, he said it was a response to bacterial endotoxins in the gut, present from eating meat, and underlying inflammation from compounds such as Neu5gc, TMAO etc… from eating meat. This creates chronic inflammation and hence a higher WBC in meat eaters. Provided one is not succumbing to multiple infections, and the WBC count is not drastically low, it is ‘usually’ not an issue, however as with any medical condition, it’s worth ruling out anything major first. Dr Klaper offers phone consultation if you want further information.




      0
    3. I can also see your logic with using anti-inflammatory herbs, but have not yet seen any research suggesting they can lower inflammation levels below what you need for health. Especially not in the quantities you are using. But open to be wrong! Perhaps you could go off the herbs for a month then re-test, then you would know for sure!




      0
  8. Hi,

    I’ve got a question on a related issue: Mineral earths such as diatomaceous earth, bentonite clay, zeolite and clinoptilolite are recommended for heavy metal detoxification and general digestive health by alternative medical practitioners. Is there any truth to these claims?

    I’d love to hear your science-based take on this.

    Greetings from Germany!




    0
  9. I have a son who was raised vegan and he spends the weekends with his dad, who has admitted to feeding him meat to spite me (we divorced last year). My son was very healthy and in the 90th percentile until this point. Is there any way you could write a recommendation for my son to eat a vegan diet?




    0

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