Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?

Drink MeErin, (CC BY 2.0)

Lithium is classically associated with extreme mental illness, and has a somewhat negative connotation in the public. In its concentrated form, it has been documented to alleviate several symptoms of mental illness. But it also can (and has had) severe negative health consequences for people taking it in high doses.

But this op-ed raises the question: Should we all be taking (a very little) bit of Lithium? It turns out that it is naturally occurring, in very small amounts, in many drinking water sources. What is surprising is that there is some evidence that these small amounts potentially have a surprisingly positive effect. Several studies have shown correlations between levels of naturally occurring lithium and positive social outcomes.

Researchers began to ask whether low levels of lithium might correlate with poor behavioral outcomes in humans. In 1990, a study was published looking at 27 Texas counties with a variety of lithium levels in their water. The authors discovered that people whose water had the least amount of lithium had significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide and rape than the people whose water had the higher levels of lithium. The group whose water had the highest lithium level had nearly 40 percent fewer suicides than that with the lowest lithium level.

Almost 20 years later, a Japanese study that looked at 18 municipalities with more than a million inhabitants over a five-year period confirmed the earlier study’s finding: Suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply.

More recently, there have been corroborating studies in Greece and Austria.

This raises several interesting questions. First, should the government and the scientific community be devoting more resources to studying the effects of lithium in these small doses? Second, suppose we found out that there are positive effects. Should we all be drinking water with these naturally occurring levels of lithium or not? Would you want your municipal water supply augmented to achieve this result? What do you think?

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