How much does sweating from a sauna or exercise get rid of lead and mercury?

In my video Is Henna Safe?, I talk about a study that proved lead could be absorbed through the skin and into the body. Researchers applied lead to someone’s left arm and then measured the level of lead in the sweat from their right arm over the next few days. As you can see at 0:16 in my video Flashback Friday: Can Saunas Detoxify Lead from the Body?, there was a big spike, proving that lead can not only go into our body, but also out of it. If we can lose lead through sweat, can we sweat for detoxification?



“No person is without some level of toxic heavy metals in their bodies, circulating and accumulating with acute and chronic lifetime exposures.” Cultures around the world have viewed sweating as health-promoting. “Worldwide traditions and customs include Roman baths, Aboriginal sweat lodges, Scandinavian saunas…and Turkish baths,” but what does the science say?

When I looked up saunas, I was surprised to see a study on the detoxification of 9/11 rescue workers, with a regimen that “included exercise, sauna bathing and vitamin and mineral supplements.” As you can see at 1:00 in my video, the researchers reported on seven individuals. Evidently, during the month before the treatment, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in their blood stayed about the same. Following the treatment, however, all rescue workers had measurable decreases in these PCBs and reportedly felt better, too. They had all sorts of symptoms—respiratory, neurological, musculoskeletal—and they all felt better after the treatment. These improvements were consistent with nearly 400 others treated with the same protocol.

Hold on. If 400 people were treated, why were the results from only seven individuals reported? That’s a bit of a red flag, but not as red as this: The detoxification regimen was developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the man who founded the infamous Church of Scientology. What’s more, the lead author of the detoxification paper appears to have failed to disclose his financial conflict of interest for presumably profiting off of the treatments.

Nevertheless, sweating does represent a “time-honored treatment” in the field of medicine for mercury poisoning, going back centuries. But other time-honored medical treatments include drilling open people’s skulls to release evil spirits or even giving people mercury itself. Remember mercurochrome? What do you think the “mercuro” stood for? In fact, some believe Mozart died of mercury poisoning trying to cure his syphilis, though all of the bloodletting he got probably didn’t help either. Bloodletting, another time-honored medical treatment that makes Scientology saunas look mild in comparison. There was a case report that described a person who apparently recovered from mercury poisoning “after six months of sweats and physical therapy,” though he might have gotten better anyway. You don’t know…until you put it to the test.

Mercury wasn’t formally studied, but lead was. Study participants stayed in a 200-degree dry sauna for 15 minutes, and, based on sweating rates, about 40 micrograms of lead were forced out of the body, with some people getting rid of 100 micrograms or more per 15-minute session. So, you could drink a gallon of chicken broth, and, even if you absorbed all of the lead in the bone soup, you could be back to baseline after just one sauna session.

Are saunas safe for children? “Based on the present scientific knowledge, sauna bathing poses no risks to healthy people from childhood to old age,” though medical supervision couldn’t hurt. This doesn’t mean it would be as effective in children because adults sweat a lot more than kids do, and, of course, kids are the ones who need lead detoxing the most, as you can see at 3:36 in my video. “There is a clear need for robust trials”—robust clinical trials—to test all of this, but even if it works, it’s not as though everyone who needs it—even those who need it most, like a child in Flint, Michigan—will have access to a sauna. That’s why I was so excited to find a paper that investigated the change in blood lead levels of basketball players after strenuous exercise. Saunas aren’t the only way to sweat. What about strenuous physical activity?

A study found that aerobic endurance training led to a drop in lead levels, with rowing more effective than cycling, but how long and how intense did the workout need to be? The paper was in German, but it seems the researchers ramped up the stationary bike by 50 watts every two minutes until the subjects reached exhaustion. So, it was probably just a few minutes with no significant before-and-after difference in blood or urine lead levels, whereas an hour-long endurance exercise row did seem to drop lead levels by about 12 percent.

I could read the basketball player study, though, since it was in English, and, as you can see at 4:38 in my video, college basketball players’ blood lead levels significantly increased—by nearly 300 percent—after a single intense training session on the court. The researchers suspected it was because it was so contaminated where they were playing. The study was done in Turkey, where the lead levels in the air are so high that all of that extra breathing by the athletes evidently made things worse, which I think underscores an important point.

All of the dietary tweaks I’ve talked about for lead poisoning and sweating it out could be thought of as more expedient and less costly than primary prevention—that is, getting at the root cause. However, “this represents a retreat of sorts from previous commitments to a clean environment and to abatement of hazardous pollutants” in the first place. Indeed, lifestyle “nutritional interventions should be thought of only as temporary solutions and continued emphasis must be placed on eliminating lead in children’s environments” in the first place.

How about diet instead? See How to Lower Heavy Metal Levels with Diet.

What about chelation therapy? Check out Heavy Metal Urine Testing and Chelation for Autism.

What about the non-heavy metal aluminum? See Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer.