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Detox Learning Center

Black Carbon and Heavy Metals: A Deadly Duo to Our Health

The most dangerous kind of opponent is one that we don’t feel attacking us directly. We don’t actively fight what we don’t perceive as a threat.

The quality of the air we breathe is sadly becoming a dangerous opponent to our good health. Toxic air pollution has become commonplace in our modern world, and we underestimate how harmful it really is.

What Is Particulate Matter?

It’s no secret: Particulate matter is a serious public health issue. Most particulate matter comes from chemical reactions between two or more pollutants. The result is an atmospheric stew of harmful substances in the air we breathe, whether in our homes or on the streets.

As defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Particulate matter, also known as particle pollution, is a complex mixture of tiny particles and liquid droplets that get into the air. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.” One of the most common types of particulate matter is black carbon. (1)

Of note here is that the heart and lungs are mentioned by name. What’s missing from this simple definition is that particulate matter — specifically black carbon — can bond with heavy metals in the environment and be absorbed into the liver, potentially causing severe harm to the body’s internal organs. (2)

What Is Black Carbon?

Black carbon is the sooty black material emitted from coal-fired power plants, gas and diesel engines, and other sources that burn fossil fuel. It is a significant portion of particulate matter, which is an air pollutant.

Black carbon consists of pure carbon in several linked forms. It forms naturally and from modern human activities. Black carbon can trigger different conditions and even premature mortality. (3)

From an environmental standpoint, it is also becoming a major catalyst to global climate change. It rivals CO2 as the main contributor to the change. (4)

What Is the Source of Black Carbon?

Unfortunately, black carbon and the heavy metals attached to it aren’t easy to avoid. We are subjected to them regularly on differing levels.

Humans are exposed to black carbon by inhaling air near local sources. Important domestic sources include candles and that cozy firepit you have in your backyard, or biomass burning. Other sources include traffic and the occasional domestic fire, forest fire, or other similar occurrences.

These are the primary outdoor sources of black carbon exposure and heavy metals. Black carbon soot also comes from coal, tars, furnaces, and to a small extent halogen bulbs.

Recent studies have shown that most black carbon is inhaled in traffic and at other locations like one’s own home. (5, 6)

You'll probably encounter the highest levels of black carbon in your car. High in-vehicle levels of black carbon have been seen while driving during rush hour, on highways, and in dense traffic. (7)

As a result, those who live in more urban, densely populated areas are at higher risk for toxicity from black carbon and heavy metal toxicity than those who live in more rural areas. 

How Can Black Carbon Affect Human Health?

Cellular Black Carbon Health Effects (mobile)

The negative effects of black carbon have been documented for three centuries. In 1775, a London surgeon named Sir Percival Pott made the connection that chimney sweepers were particularly susceptible to developing serious health issues. (

He surmised that soot was the first environmental factor in causing sickness. Hundreds of studies have since proven his suspicions: soot and black carbon are dangerous carcinogens.  

One of the reasons is that it changes DNA methylation. Black carbon can alter DNA methylation and affect specific genes. (9)

Studies suggest that other cellular black carbon health effects include: (10)

  • DNA damage
  • Higher cell death rate
  • Increased free radicals
  • Lower glutathione production (central in preventing cellular damage)
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction

Our bodies naturally strive to restore health, but black carbon can break DNA and prevent it from repairing itself. Black carbon can also contribute to cardiovascular disease. (11, 12)

Short-term exposure to high levels of air pollution leads to higher risk of heart attack. Black carbon effects are even more dangerous to the hearts of those not eating a healthy diet. The black carbon particles greatly accelerated the “aging” of the cells that line the heart. (1314)

The lungs are the first inner tissue to be exposed to black carbon when we inhale. Black carbon can have immediate effects on the lining of the lungs and generate cell death in the bronchial epithelial cells. (15)

Respiratory disorders and increased risk of developing asthma were found to be higher from black carbon.  Exposure to black carbon and heavy metals in the lungs can spread throughout the body, and studies suggest it creates inflammation in the brain. (1617)

The liver is a vital organ involved in digestion, hormones, and detoxification. Particulate matter, black carbon, and heavy metals impair its ability to function properly and can create liver toxicity. (18)

The liver is designed to protect us from these harmful substances. But the long-term inflammation and DNA damage from black carbon can render the liver unable to detoxify effectively.

The liver is also involved in glucose metabolism. Studies suggest that high exposure to black carbon can induce insulin resistance, independent of a person's weight. Insulin resistance can be a precursor to type 2 diabetes. (19

How Does Black Carbon Affect Fertility and Unborn Babies?

Sadly, the adverse health effects of black carbon can begin before a person is even born since black carbon is linked to lower sperm count. Researchers have discovered black carbon in the placenta of healthy non-smoking mothers. (20, 21)

Unborn babies whose mothers had higher exposure to black carbon and air pollution can have lower birth weight, smaller head circumference, and a greater chance of premature birth. (22)

Studies also suggest that being exposed prenatally can have a harmful impact on neurological function. These cognitive issues seemed to be greater in males than females. (2324)

Black carbon and heavy metals seem to be able to be transferred from mother to baby and break liver DNA. (25)

Heavy Metals: Black Carbon’s Sidekick

toxic heavy metals (mobile)

Unfortunately, black carbon isn't the only particle we are exposed to or inhale. Black carbon attracts heavy metals to its surface, bringing more potential harm to our bodies.   

Many heavy metals — such as aluminum, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead — in certain forms and amounts are not beneficial for the body. In fact, these heavy metals can disrupt normal metabolic functions. They increase inflammation, create a surge of reactive oxygen species, and inhibit needed enzymes from working. (26)

Aluminum, for example, interferes with the vast majority of physical and cellular functions. It blocks enzymes that are required by our DNA and RNA. It has a greater ability to attach itself to the cell than our enzymes. It accumulates in the brain and creates lesions similar to those found in Alzheimer's patients.

Arsenic deteriorates our blood vessels, leads to skin lesions, and promotes liver and lung diseases. (27)

Cadmium also disrupts enzymes in the cell and creates oxidative damage. Cadmium concentrations skyrocket 3,000 times as it binds with cysteine. This produces liver toxicity, which circulates to the kidneys and accumulates there. Cadmium binds to other amino acids that could induce iron deficiency. (28, 29)

Lead is particularly dangerous as a cofactor with black carbon because its absorption rate is magnified. 95% of lead ends up in our bones. As cells change over, the lead is again released, chronically poisoning us. Chronic lead exposure can lead to allergies, autism, edema in the brain, impaired growth, and lower IQ. (30313233)

Mercury induces mitochondrial and kidney damage. Like aluminum, it seems to favor settling in the brain, creating neurological problems. (34)

High levels of these less-bioavailable heavy metals can get into our bodies alongside the black carbon. When this happens, toxicity develops rather than optimum health.

How Does Black Carbon Affect The Environment?

Research on how black carbon affects the environment is an ongoing focus for scientists. They estimate that it has a lifespan in the atmosphere of around 4-12 days. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for decades to centuries.

Black carbon may be in the atmosphere for a fraction of the time, but make no mistake — it is a huge factor in global warming. It has a fantastic affinity to absorb light and heat its surroundings. In fact, per unit of mass, black carbon is 460-1,500 times stronger in its ability to warm than CO2. (33) 

Another environmental effect to consider is on animals. Most mammals have similar organ and cellular systems to our own. If our cell and organ processes are being corrupted by black carbon and heavy metals, it’s safe to assume that theirs are being affected as well. This could disrupt animal populations as well as biodiversity. It may also impact animals closer to home, such as pets. (34)

The Benefits of Black Carbon Awareness

After reading all this, it's easy to get overwhelmed or nervous about the environment around us. That's natural, but thankfully nature also provides way to fight back. A good first step is to look at ways to naturally detox and support the body, including binders and natural herbs to boost important organs like the liver. 

Becoming educated on the health effects of black carbon and heavy metal toxicity shouldn’t scare us. It’s just unveiling the facts of this growing, yet mostly silent opponent. Now we can focus on being proactive by discovering ways to reduce black carbon and protecting ourselves, our loved ones, and the environment.