What is Bismuth?
Bismuth is a metal used in various industrial, cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. It is a naturally occurring chemical element with the chemical symbol Bi. The metal has been known for thousands of years but was sometimes confused with tin and lead which have similar physical properties.
Bismuth was long regarded as the element of highest atomic mass to be stable, but in 2003 scientists discovered that it was weakly radioactive. However, its half-life is extremely long – over a billion times the age of our universe – so it is regarded as stable for the vast majority of purposes.
What is it Used for?
Bismuth has various commercial applications but they are relatively small. In 2010 for example, there were 884 tones consumed. 63% of that amount were used in chemicals like cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, 26% were used in metallurgical additives for galvanizing or casting while only 7% of bismuth went into alloys, ammunition and solders.
Because of concerns over lead toxicity, bismuth is used by some manufacturers as a lead substitute in drinking water systems. Bismuth compounds are also used as a pigment in certain cosmetics and some pharmaceuticals for digestive problems such as bismuth subsalicylate.
Potential Health Dangers
While bismuth has been regarded as a safe alternative to lead, there is still the potential for exposure and harm. Bismuth exposure could happen in a variety of ways. Bismuth may be ingested, inhaled or absorbed into the body via the skin.
More often than not, bismuth exposure occurs through working with or in a close proximity to it. A plumber for example may risk exposure from inhaling soldering fumes. You could also be putting yourself at risk by using cosmetic products or medications that contain bismuth as an ingredient.
Many countries including Great Britain, Denmark and the US have now banned lead shot from being used in hunting wetland birds because the birds are prone to mistaking the lead for stone and ingesting it.
This can cause lead poisoning in the birds so bismuth is sometimes used as an alternative in hunting. Despite being championed as a safe alternative for lead, studies have demonstrated that similarly to lead, bismuth is measurable in the blood and urine samples of animals. (1)
Bismuth Exposure Symptoms
Although bismuth is considered to be relatively non toxic especially in small quantities, there is still a danger that certain people can become exposed resulting in some nasty side effects. These effects include headaches, nausea, pain and diarrhea.
A German study published in 2009 also found that anemia was a potential side effect of bismuth exposure. And recommended caution when taking medications that contained bismuth. (2) Bismuth is also suspected of being among the metals that can contribute to male infertility. (3)
Because bismuth nano particles are being used more and more frequently, there is increasing debate regarding their safety. Their tiny size has raised growing concerns about just how easily they can be absorbed by the body and how dangerous they might be when it comes to our health.
A recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Florida found that bismuth nano particles were likely much more toxic than bismuth in other forms. (4)
Bismuth and bismuth salts may cause damage to the kidneys although the severity of kidney damage is usually not serious. Having said that, exposure to large doses of bismuth can prove fatal.
When compared with other heavy metals, bismuth is regarded as less toxic however very serious, even fatal poisoning is possible when large amounts of bismuth get into the system.
Other toxic effects may include skin reactions, serious exodermatitis, vague feelings of discomfort, diarrhea and albumin in the urine.
Bismuth in Cosmetics
Given that bismuth has chemical properties similar to arsenic, it may come as a surprise that it is so widely used by the cosmetics industry. In fact, its use is probably more widespread than you would like to believe.
It sounds a little alarmist but the truth is that you may well be reading this article with bismuth on your face at this very moment.
So why do cosmetic companies use this heavy metal?
Bismuth is used in cosmetics because it hides flaws well and adds a glow to the face…not to mention that it is a very cheap filler material. It has strong binding qualities meaning that your make-up will stick to the skin all day long.
Unfortunately, many women who use cosmetic products that contain bismuth will experience a reaction. Some women find that their skin itches especially when they perspire.
This may in turn lead to a nasty rash and unwanted acne. Women should make sure that their brand of cosmetics is free of bismuth in order to avoid the risk of exposure.
Bismuth subsalicylate is a commonly used medication for the treatment of diarrhea, indigestion, nausea and other symptoms of an upset stomach. It can help to make the stools firmer and reduce the frequency of bowel movements.
It is believed to work by limiting secretions in the digestive system, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and reducing inflammation in the gut. While bismuth subsalicylate is an effective medicine for diarrhea and indigestion, it is not without its dangers. Not only do medicines containing bismuth increase your chances of exposure to the metal but there are a number of other potential side effects.
The Side effects of bismuth subsalicylate include:
- The most common symptom is a temporary darkening of the stools and of the tongue but is not considered serious.
- Less common but more severe allergic reactions such as rashes, itching, swelling of the tongue and face, dizziness, breathing difficulties.
- A ringing in the ears.
Dangers for Children
Children are especially susceptible to the effects of bismuth subsalicylate and it is not recommended as a treatment for children under the age of 12.
In addition, children who are recovering from a bout of the chicken pox should absolutely avoid any remedies containing bismuth subsalicylate. It may result in a very rare but serious condition known as Reye’s syndrome.
How to Avoid Exposure to Bismuth
If you are in any way concerned about the potential dangers of bismuth exposure, there are several things that you can do.
- Avoid any medications which contain bismuth as an ingredient. There are alternative medications for diarrhea and stomach upset but we would recommend trying a natural treatment for diarrhea instead. There are several effective natural remedies including ginger, fenugreek seeds and yogurt. Herbal teas like chamomile can also help soothe an upset stomach and remedy diarrhea.
- If your job involves the risk of exposure to bismuth, take stock and consider making a change. Jobs that expose you to one heavy metal are actually more likely to expose you to others.
- Make sure that you avoid all cosmetic products that contain bismuth. There are plenty of natural alternatives that do not involve plastering your skin in toxic metals.
- Your body will thank you for taking care of it by regularly detoxing. Make sure that you drink plenty of clean water and consider a detox program several times each year to keep your body in its optimum state of health.