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Healthy Skeptic: Is hair analysis a brush with quackery?

Although metals can be detected in hair samples, it would be hard to answer the question of how much is actually in the body.

October 11, 2010|By Chris Woolston, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Some alternative health clinics offer hair analysis for heavy metals.
Some alternative health clinics offer hair analysis for heavy metals. (J.B. Forbes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch…)

Heavy metals can show up just about anywhere. We have arsenic in our streams, lead in our air and mercury in our tuna sandwiches. But in these health-conscious times, many of us wonder about a more pressing issue: How much of this stuff is in our bodies?

Doctors rely on blood or urine tests to check for heavy metals in their patients. But many people who wonder about their personal toxic payload have decided to skip the doctor's visit. Instead, they're reaching for their scissors.

Many alternative health clinics across the country offer hair analysis for heavy metals. Janet Starr Hull, a nutritionist based in Melissa, Texas, collects hair through the mail for her "Online Hair Analysis Program." The instructional video on her website tells prospective clients to collect "one heaping tablespoon of hair" in a baggie. Because hair dyes sometimes contain lead and other contaminants, people who have dyed hair are encouraged to send in pubic samples instead.

About two weeks after sending in their hair samples, clients receive a report that details the levels of 17 heavy metals — aluminum, titanium and more — including a few that most of us have never thought to worry about. (Beryllium? Platinum? Who knew?) The analysis also includes levels of 22 minerals, including calcium, zinc and phosphorus. Along with the analysis, clients receive an e-mail from Hull that interprets the results and offers nutritional advice. The whole package costs $187.

Nutritionally Yours Health Solutions in Roswell, Ga., offers to analyze hair samples for 20 metals, including minerals and heavy metals. Clients can order a hair collection kit through the company's website. According to the site, it usually takes about 12 days to get results. The "complete package," which includes advice on diet and vitamin supplements, costs $179. Clients are encouraged to have the test every six months to track their progress.

The Claims

In a phone interview, Hull said hair analysis is "very reliable" and "helpful for people who want to know why they are ill." According to Hull, the test can help uncover the root cause of many illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson's, attention deficit disorder and autism. Clients who aren't especially sick are welcome to send it samples, too. "It's a fun thing for everyone to do," she said.

Hull's website says that, through hair analysis, you can "create your own road map for wellness." She claims that there's an especially strong connection between metals and cancer. According to Hull, a smoker whose hair sample doesn't contain any trace of cadmium can keep on smoking without worry. But if cadmium is present, he or she needs to quit.

Nutritionally Yours Health Solutions did not respond to an interview request. The company's website claims that "a hair analysis gives a complete picture of a person's health history." The site also says that "if you are wanting to learn [if] heavy metal toxicity is a problem, hair analysis is the best way to test."

The bottom line

It's true that some heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in our bodies make their way to the hair, says James Klaunig, a professor of toxicology at Indiana University in Indianapolis and a member of the executive council of the Society of Toxicology. (Klaunig is an expert in forensic toxicology, the science of finding traces of toxins in various body tissues.)

But in his opinion, hair is a lousy indicator of heavy metal levels in the rest of the body. Though a properly tested hair sample might be able to show that a person has a certain metal in his or her system, "the levels are difficult if not impossible to quantify," he says. In other words, hair analysis can provide a yes-or-no answer, but it can't reliably answer the all-important question of how much.

Klaunig notes that researchers recently found arsenic in a lock of Napoleon's hair, but it was impossible to tell whether he had enough of the metal to suffer from poisoning.

Many researchers over the years have tried to develop toxin tests for hair samples, says LuAnne White, professor of environmental health sciences at Tulane University School of Medicine and Tropical Health in New Orleans. But, according to White, such attempts have mostly been abandoned as a "dead end." As White explains, hair follicles soak up compounds (toxic or otherwise) in a haphazard and unpredictable manner, so a hair analysis can never be as accurate as a blood or urine test at a doctor's office. "If you think you've been exposed to a heavy metal, you should go to a doctor," she says.

Klaunig, who also studies how various chemicals can trigger cancer, says that heavy metals very rarely cause cancer or any other serious illness. "People overestimate the impact of heavy metals." He believes that a hair analysis indicating high levels of metals could cause unnecessary worry.

"But if a report came back saying you had low levels, that could give you a false sense of security," Klaunig adds. A smoker needs to quit smoking, he says, no matter how much or how little cadmium they have in their hair.

Curious about a consumer health product? Send an e-mail to health@latimes.com.

Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.

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