Canadian Firefighter Magazine

WellBeing: October 2015

By Elias Markou   

Features Health and Wellness Wellness

Have you ever tested the amount of heavy metal you have in your body? Do you know which toxic elements are stored deep inside your tissues? These are very important questions all people should ask themselves, but it’s even more important that firefighters do so.

I have been involved in firefighter wellbeing for almost 15 years and in this time conducted thousands of firefighter physical exams. Over the years I have modified the exam to include health basics and a more detailed assessment of cardiovascular, hormonal and immune screening. I collect specific data about every organ system in the body by observing, measuring and testing urine and blood.

Ten years ago I stumbled onto a specific test called a urine element analysis, or a heavy metal test. I first decided to conduct this test on myself, as I do with anything I recommend to my patients. Much to my amazement, I realized my body was filled with toxic metals from everyday life and especially from my time as a firefighter. This realization changed everything in my life, and was when I began to change the lives of my firefighter patients.

As a firefighter I always thought I was healthy, and when I left the fire service I continued to think my health was impeccable and I had nothing to worry about. Don’t we all as firefighters think we are healthy?

Ten years ago I decided to bio-monitor all my firefighter patients and determine a baseline test on the volume of heavy metals in their bodies. Bio-monitoring is the term used for the analysis of urine, blood, saliva and stool for toxic chemicals to determine chemical exposure and bio-accumulation. Bio-accumulation is the term used to describe the build-up of heavy metals and chemicals in the human body. While the presence of chemicals does not mean you have a diagnosed condition, we know from a number of studies on firefighters that toxins have the ability to stress the body, and that long-term chemical presence can lead to chronic conditions.


I recommend that every firefighter be tested for toxic metals and begin the process of removing or chelating out these metals. Such metals include mercury, arsenic, aluminum, lead, tin and uranium. The word chelation comes from a Greek word meaning claw. A chelating agent removes toxic metals from the tissues and fluid around cells and brings them back into the circulatory system so that they can be measured and eliminated by the liver and the kidneys via urine.

Chelation has been around for thousands of years and was done using herbs such as cilantro and parsley, as well as the single-cell algae chlorella. Modern-day chelating agents are synthetic chemical compounds and include DMPS, DMSA, alpha lipoic acid and EDTA.

DMPS is an amino acid used to bind mercury, arsenic, bismuth and lead. Alpha lipoic acid, a highly anti-oxidant agent, is transformed in the body into a compound dithiol dihydrolipoic acid that is able to chelate arsenic and mercury. DMSA, another amino acid, can be given intravenously or orally and is commonly used to chelate lead, arsenic and mercury. Finally EDTA is a crystalline acid commonly given intravenously to chelate lead. These agents all do one thing: they pull the metals out the body.

Toxic heavy metals are known to block the beneficial effects of essential vitamins and minerals such as zinc, calcium and vitamin B6. These metals are aggressive and replace essential nutrients that are important to biochemical processes. For example, lead can replace calcium in bone while mercury can block vitamin B6 action in the central nervous system. Toxic elements can also increase the body’s volume of free radicals that contribute to tissue inflammation and chronic disease.

Many firefighters remember certain events in their careers that resulted in environmental exposures. A single large exposure event to a toxic agent is rare and is generally considered a medical emergency. But small exposures to heavy metals can accumulate over time and can cause chronic health conditions. Measurement of toxic elements in urine can help determine if accumulation has occurred, although having higher-than-expected levels does not prove toxic elements are causing symptoms.

My patients that have undertaken environmental monitoring or bio-monitoring in the past 10 years have been able to identify toxicity levels and undergo detailed chelation programs to remove them. The chelation process takes between 12 and 18 months, but is a valuable treatment for firefighters to eliminate chemicals and heavy metals in their systems. The IAFF website includes some newly posted information on bio-monitoring at

Consider learning more about bio-monitoring and looking into testing options. In this toxic world, bio-monitoring is here to stay and it will likely become a very important way for firefighters to monitor their health. 

Elias Markou is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Markou was a volunteer firefighter for six years and is now a firefighter health expert and blogger.

* Carousel photo from Flickr by William Warby

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