A study carried out in June of 2011 demonstrated that drinking water contaminated with lithium could actually lower suicide rates, according to MedicalXpress.com. So should lithium be added as a supplement to the water supply, as is done with fluoride?
In the study, 6,460 samples of drinking water were tested across 99 districts in Austria. Districts with higher levels of lithium tended to report lower suicide rates. The results weren't terribly shocking, as lithium has been used for decades to treat a medley of mental health concerns, including depression. This was the first time its effect was measured based on trace amounts within drinking water, however.
In some areas lithium occurs naturally in the water supply, likely leached out of rocks and stones. However, there is growing reason to suspect that lithium levels in the water are increasing due to its use as a prescription drug.
"The light metal lithium has been used in psychiatry for 60 years as a mood stabilizer and to prevent depression. It is also excreted out of the body and enters the groundwater or is not filtered out by the sewage treatment plants," explained Nestor Kapusta from the University Department of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy at the MedUni Vienna. "A high density of psychiatrists and high levels of prescribing could mean more lithium in the drinking water, which could also have a positive impact on untreated individuals."
Because of lithium's soothing psychological affects, and since it is a trace element often found in water, some researchers have even suggested that lithium could be an essential nutrient for humans-- though that's controversial. Lithium in controlled doses can have positive effects regarding mental health, but it does carry some risk in the form of side effects too. Namely, it is associated with kidney and thyroid problems.
Even Kapusta, who is optimistic about the potential benefits of lithium, expressed caution about adding it to the water supply.
"It would be far too premature to suggest that lithium should be added to drinking water. Further research is definitely needed on this," he said. He also noted that it is not yet clear what effect long term exposure to lithium can have on pregnant women and children.
Regardless of what the research may suggest, any attempt to 'medicate' the water supply is sure to be met with widespread skepticism, if the debate about fluoride in the drinking water is any indication. Currently, two-thirds of Americans have fluoridated public water, but debates about the issue continue to rage. Those that oppose water fluoridation cite studies showing that the positive effects on dental health are ambiguous at best. They also point out that fluoride is unquestionably toxic at certain concentrations, and argue that fluoridation is an unethical form of mass-medication without an individual's consent.
Similar concerns are sure to be raised if lithium is likewise suggested as an additive to the water supply. In fact, because lithium is used to treat mental health issues, making it mandatory in the drinking water could set an especially dangerous precedent. Should we, as a society, be in the business of manufacturing certain psychological traits in others, regardless of whether those traits are widely deemed desirable?
Such action would certainly make for a brave new world.
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