In a real Erin Brockovich style of events, residents of a coastal town in Australia's state of Tasmania have been suffering hair loss, headaches, weight loss, and nerve damage because they've been poisoned by contaminated mine water, an accusation disputed by the mine.
The poly-metallic mine in the small town of Rosebery produces zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold, and locals say heavy metals have been seeping onto their properties. Toxic levels of heavy metal exposure can cause major health problems such as neuromuscular disorders, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, schizophrenia and strokes. Thinning hair and hair loss are common signs of poisoning.
Lithium and selenium toxicity is known to cause hair loss but lead, cadmium, mercury, iron, aluminium, copper, and other heavy metals can also affect hair growth. The toxins have a negative interfere with hormones, strip the body of nutrients, and can even damage the actual hair follicle, resulting in excessive hair shedding and impaired hair growth.
Heavy metals accumulate in the joints, bone, liver and other organs and glands but they don't usually appear in blood tests unless there is extreme poisoning. However, the hair and nails can be indicative of heavy metal exposure, and slow, long term exposure to the metals can lead to thinning hair, particularly if there is a genetic predisposition to hereditary hair loss - male pattern baldness and, in women, female pattern hair loss.
When hair loss is caused solely as a result of heavy metal poisoning it is likely that the shedding will be temporary. The hair loss condition it triggers is Diffuse Thinning, also known as Chronic Telogen Effluvium. This tends to last for a minimum of six months but, once the cause has been dealt with and any trigger removed, it can clear up naturally. Chronic telogen effluvium treatment can also be used to speed up regrowth in many cases.
When heavy metal poisoning is suspected, it is important to begin medical treatment as soon as possible, prior to dealing with any resulting hairloss. The treatment for most heavy metal poisoning is chelation therapy, which is given either orally, intramuscularly, or intravenously, but it cannot reverse any neurological damage already sustained, it can only prevent further effects of the poisoning.
Many of the town's 1500 residents are now looking for compensation from the mine which turned over a $73 million profit in 2008, despite the global financial crisis.
Peter Long from law firm Slater and Gordon believes there is "no doubt" locals are being poisoned.
"There is absolutely no doubt that these people are suffering heavy metal poisoning; the strong inference is that it comes from the mine, but that is going to require some more investigation," Long said.
The owners of the mine will test the town for evidence of heavy metals in the environment, but general manager John Lamb says at this stage, there is no proof the mine is responsible for the poisonings.
"That will involve testing in excess of 100 sites, they'll be taking soil samples, they take dust from roof cavities, and also any water that might be standing in yards. And that's then subjected to a laboratory analysis for a suite of 10 metal toxicants," Lamb said.
"I'm always concerned to hear that people in the town believe that they're ill and believe that they might be ill from living in that town [but] the fact of the matter is that I don't believe that's obvious at this point."
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