The Arctic Endeavor! Vitamin A Scenario:
(updated from 2011)
Here’s the scenario…
You have decided that this year’s vacation is going to be an Arctic camping extravaganza!
Imagine…really, really long days, bitterly cold breezes, miles upon miles of white snow secluded beaches, and native delicacies that are world renown (and unknown) and second to none.
Your travel arrangements are all set, you have your gear …and you’re off!
So there you are in the middle of the Arctic. Snapping gorgeous pictures of nature’s ice sculptures all the while you’re thinking “What a nice screen saver picture this will make.” You are detailing your adventures of “roughing it” on Facebook and relishing in your decision to leave civilization behind.
After a long, long, long day of nature at its fullest expression, it dawns on you that you’re hungry. Now you’ve watched all of the ‘Survivorman’ and ‘Man vs. Wild’ episodes on TV so you’re well prepared and perfectly skilled at setting traps to catch yourself a fresh meal.
Then…all of a sudden…it happens!
You find yourself in a life or death situation with a polar bear!
Now, you are aware that although polar bears are not yet on an endangered species list, killing one would be in bad taste. Unless, of course your own life is endangered…and it is!
So, after a brutal battle you are victorious! The unfortunate bear will now be your dinner.
As this is your first kill, you really want to follow the native tradition of eating the liver. After all, in the movie ‘Dances with Wolves’ the lieutenant (played by Kevin Costner) ate the tatonka (buffalo) liver because it was his first kill.
With this mind set, you cut out the polar bear’s liver and take a massive bite!
As your food begins to digest, you savor your full belly, relax and pick up your Arctic travel brochure for some leisure reading…and there it is:
!!WARNING: Eat Polar Bear Livers At Your Own Risk!!
You read all about how polar bear livers are loaded with Vitamin A (retinol); as much as 8,000,000 I.U!
The brochure explains that Arctic explorers who had eaten polar bear livers allegedly died from Vitamin A toxicity. You now begin to panic and wonder what your outcome is going to be.
‘Survivorman’ didn’t prepare you for this!
What will happen to you out there in the middle of the Arctic??
Dogmatic Beliefs about Vitamin A
The ending of this story has multiple variations depending, of course, on your dogmatic beliefs about Vitamin A. So let’s investigate some possible endings to our story.
First, we must ask the following two questions:
- Can this apparent high dose of Vitamin A, in the form of retinol, kill you or just make you sick? Or neither?
- Might there be something other than the high dose of Vitamin A that you should fear in this instance?
Now, it is the alleged “deaths” of those explorers that began this Vitamin A toxicity bandwagon. However, in reality, none of those explorers died!
There are some websites that state the following with regard to arctic explorers and polar bear livers:
“The Arctic explorers who were said to have died actually lived, but did suffer from exfoliative dermatitis and hair loss. In 1988, a team of Swedish scientists discovered that polar bear and seal livers tend to accumulate the metal cadmium. The symptoms for cadmium poisoning are exfoliative dermatitis and hair loss.”
Of course this is implying that it was not the 8,000,000 IU of vitamin A (retinol), but rather an overdose of cadmium that caused their illness. If this were true, surely we would be told…right?
Now, at first I felt the proverbial “Ah Ha” and felt sure that I had what I needed to write my vitamin A controversy piece. However, since I don’t simply repeat what I read on the internet but instead perform my own research, I found that the cadmium theory may not hold much water if we are talking about cadmium by itself. But, cadmium in combination with arsenic is a whole other story.
Yes, the amounts of cadmium found in polar bear livers is more than enough to cause toxic symptoms in humans, and one of the symptoms experienced by the explorers was hair loss. Many heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, mercury, iron, aluminum, copper and arsenic, can cause this toxic reaction. However, we are only half-way to concluding that cadmium may be a culprit of the explorer’s illness as we continue to explore the vitamin A toxicity theory.
The other symptom the explorers were said to have experienced was exfoliative dermatitis (massive scaling of the skin). So, if cadmium causes this condition as well, we have our conclusion. However, according to my research, exfoliative dermatitis is not a symptom of cadmium poisoning. So it would appear that there must be another culprit that has been overlooked.
Extremely high levels of arsenic have been found in marine mammals (including polar bears) with higher concentrations found in the livers and other organs. Just as cadmium, arsenic can cause hair loss; but does it cause exfoliative dermatitis? Well, according to the ‘Heavy Metal Handbook: A Guide for Healthcare Practitioners’, it absolutely does. And we haven’t even begun to look at mercury toxicity!
So the run down on toxicity symptoms looks something like this:
The symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Joint pain
- Dry lips
- Scaly, dry skin (not defined as exfoliative dermatitis, which is far more serious)
- Excessive hair loss
Toxic symptoms of cadmium ingestion include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Increased salivation
- Painful spasms of the anal sphincter
- Hair loss
Toxic symptoms of arsenic ingestion include the following:
- Gastric distress
- Diarrhea with blood present in the stools
- Dizzy spells
- Burning pain in the esophagus
- Low blood pressure
- Hair loss
- Exfoliative dermatitis
- Skin cancer
After many hours of research, I have broken down the possible causes of the arctic explorer’s illness:
- Vitamin A toxicity indeed causes hair loss and dry scaly skin; but not to the degree that could be diagnosed as exfoliative dermatitis, which is far more serious.
- Cadmium indeed causes hair loss, but not exfoliative dermatitis.
- Arsenic indeed causes hair loss AND it also causes exfoliative dermatitis
So it would appear that after eating polar bear livers, the explorers illness may be partially blamed on cadmium poisoning and extremely high dosages of retinol (8,000, 000 IU), but the more likely cause of their illness appears to be arsenic poisoning.
Now it is important to note that the explorers did not die, but were very sick and later recovered.
The notion that eating polar bear livers is a bad idea is not a new one. I mean if we think about who might eat this organ meat, Eskimos come to mind. And guess what? They don’t eat it!
So what have I concluded?
Refrain from eating polar bear livers for 2 reasons:
- Thanks to man and his lack of environmental concern, polar bears (as well as seals) are loaded with toxic chemicals and heavy metals from the seas. Perhaps that should be a bigger concern than retinol toxicity!
- 8,000,000 IU’s is an unbelievably high dosage of vitamin A no matter how you slice it! Although vitamin A is not the toxic monster some make it out to be, we have to remember that everything can be potentially harmful if taken in unusually large amounts, including water.
So let’s be real here! We are talking about extremes. The idea that vitamin A (retinol) is toxic at low doses such as 5000 IU, 10, 000 IU or even 100,000 IU is very misleading. In fact there are many studies that have shown dosages as high as 300,000 IU per day for a year had no ill effect.
Makes you wonder a bit doesn’t it? And it should!