In Scotland, scientists are looking into claims that adding lithium to water supplies could help our mental wellbeing.
Lithium occurs naturally in many water sources in Scotland, leaching out from volcanic rock at very low concentration, as well as in other regions around the globe. When it occurs naturally in tap water, a typical daily dose is no more than 2mg a day. In therapeutic doses, around 300mg a day, lithium is used as a mood stabilising drug and is mainly to treat people with bipolar disorder. How it works is not fully understood. It is thought that it modifies the production and turnover of certain chemical compounds called neurotransmitters that are found in the brain.
Professor Daniel Smith, from the University of Glasgow School of Medicine is heading up the research which aims to show if there is a link between lithium in water and lower suicide rates in Scotland, which has already been shown in other countries. Previous research in Austria and Japan, where lithium occurs naturally in the water, does suggest that people who get lithium in their water supply are less likely to take their own lives. ‘None of the studies so far has been definitive. We want to improve the methodology by looking at smaller post code areas,’ he explains. We are also taking into account other factors such as unemployment rates, poverty rates and access to mental health services.’ The results are expected next year and, depending on what they show, discussions about adding lithium to the water supply could take place. At the moment, lithium is not deliberately added to water as a health measure anywhere in the world.
It is a very controversial step however. One scientist involved in this work ongoing in Scotland, Professor Allan Young, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London has already been targeted by hate mail and has even received death threats, simply because he has studied the effect of environmental lithium on our wellbeing. The levels of daily lithium from tap water would be extremely low – less than one hundredth of a dose someone would receive daily on prescription, but everyone drinking the water would be given the same dose – men, women and children.
Thirsty children actually drink more water than adults. According to US figures, a boy between the ages of 11 and 14 needs to drink 3.3 litres of water per day, and a girl the same age needs 2.8 litres per day. The European Food Safety Authority recommends that women should drink about 1.6 litres of fluid and men should drink about 2.0 litres of fluid per day.
‘It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes people invest in our water filtration systems,’ says Matt Hobbis, Managing Director of Freshly Squeezed Water Ltd, which supplies and fits systems that take mains water and filters it through a semi-permeable membrane 0.0001 of a micron thick. This reduces total dissolved solids such as aluminium sulphate in water from around 350 parts per million – the average – to just 20 parts per million. ‘We already have clients who are worried about levels of artificial hormones, from plastic packaging and water bottles as well as contraceptive pills in water supplies and the presence of chlorine. Now, they may have to worry about lithium too.’
Professor Chris Exley thinks it is ‘unlikely’ that lithium will be added to water supplies soon and thinks the idea is ‘not really feasible’ but says that such low amounts is unlikely to make any difference to mood anyway and is ‘unlikely to cause harm’.