What You Don't Know About Iron Can Kill You

Remember the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz?

Everyone knows he was really made of iron, like a "tin" can. But the very iron he was made of could also hurt him. If he wasn't careful, he would rust solid and couldn't lead a normal life.

People don't rust like the Tin Man, but iron can be dangerous to us, too. It can prevent us from leading a normal life. It can even cause fatal illnesses. Iron is one of the most misunderstood parts of our diet. Here are some NEW facts about iron: why you need it, when it is dangerous, how it affects people with a disease called "hemochromatosis", and what you can do to protect yourself.

Why do I need iron?
Iron is vital for making red blood cells.

You can't survive without it. Your body must have iron to make the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body.

But if I need it, how can iron be dangerous?
Iron is also very toxic.

Iron is a poisonous metal, just like lead and mercury. While you need a very small amount of iron, any excess will slowly destroy your heart, joints, liver, and other organs, and greatly increases your risk of getting cancer.

Why haven't I heard about this before?
This is new information for us, too.

Scientists have only discovered these problems with iron in the last few years. Iron levels we used to think of as "normal" are actually unhealthy. We're trying to alert everyone to these new facts -- especially those who may have "hemochromatosis" and don't know it.

What is hemochromatosis?
A genetic disease that causes a massive buildup of iron.

If you have hemochromatosis (HC), a defect in your intestine causes it to soak up iron like a sponge. Untreated, it is 100% fatal. Death usually occurs before age 55 and can happen as early as your teens.

How do you get HC?
By inheriting the gene from your parents.

HC is inherited, so you have it from birth. It's not contagious. But since both parents must carry the trait for you to inherit the disease, HC is sometimes difficult to trace. You could still have HC even if no one else in your family has ever had it.

How common is it?
It is THE most common fatal genetic disorder.

HC affects 1.5 million Americans. Thirty million more carry the trait and can pass HC to their children. Your odds of having HC are about 1 in 190, maybe more depending on your ancestry. Sadly, most victims don't discover they have HC until it is too late for effective treatment.

What are some of the symptoms of iron excess?

Not everyone with HC has all these symptoms, nor does having some of these always mean you have HC. But if you know someone who has any of these symptoms, they should see their doctor for testing right away!

Can HC be treated?
Yes!

Here's good news about hemochromatosis: There is a safe, simple, and completely effective treatment for HC. If detected and treated in time, someone with HC can lead an entirely normal life, with no limits at all on any activity! In many cases, damage from the iron excess actually reverses and symptoms disappear.

So what can I do to protect myself?
Be informed!

Following the new guidelines for a low-fat, high fruit and vegetable diet also helps control your iron. Read package labels and avoid highly iron-fortified foods. And don't take extra iron unless recommended by your doctor!

Know your iron status!

Do you know your blood pressure? Your cholesterol level? Knowing your iron status is just as important for your good health. Ask your doctor for the TIBC Saturation test. (This is not the same as your blood iron level. Most doctors do not include this test in their standard exam, so don't assume you have been checked.) Early detection and treatment of HC will prevent the damage caused by iron excess.

What else can I do?
Support your local Hemochromatosis Foundation chapter.

Your tax-deductible donations make it possible for us to provide this free information about iron, and supports the research needed to better understand how iron affects your health. You also help us reach and support those with iron excess in this community. With your generous help, someday we will even find a cure for hemochromatosis.

So remember how the Tin Man had to be careful about his iron.

You do too. Stay informed, ask your doctor about cutting back on your iron intake, and have your iron status checked soon. These simple steps can mean a long, healthy life for you and those you love.

For more information, please contact: The Hemochromatosis Foundation


(c) Copyright 1995, Hemochromatosis Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All contributions to the Foundation are tax-deductable. This document may be reproduced as desired if reproduced in its entirity, including this copyright notice.