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Lithium Levels In Tap Water Linked To Lower Suicide Rates

May 1, 2009

A new study from Japan suggests that drinking water containing the element lithium may reduce the risk of suicide, BBC News reported.

Lithium levels in drinking water and suicide rates were examined by researchers in the prefecture of Oita, which has a population of over one million residents.

The team wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry that the suicide rate was significantly lower in those areas that showed the highest levels of lithium.

Doctors have long treated serious mood disorders with high doses of lithium.

However, even relatively low levels of the element appeared to have a positive impact on suicide rates, according to the researchers from the universities of Oita and Hiroshima.

They discovered that levels often ranged from 0.7 to 59 micrograms per liter, suggesting that while these levels were low, there may be a cumulative protective effect on the brain from years of drinking tap water that contain these levels.

The association between lithium in tap water and suicide has been documented in one other previous study, which collected data from the 1980s and showed a significantly lower rate of suicide in areas with relatively high lithium levels.

The researchers are not suggesting that lithium be added to drinking water, but they have called for further research in other countries to see if there are similar effects.

Many experts have criticized the addition of fluoride in tap water to protect dental health, arguing it is a form of mass involuntary medication.

“This intriguing data should provoke further research,” said Professor Allan Young of Vancouver’s Institute for Mental Health.

He wrote in an accompanying editorial on the study that large-scale trials involving the addition of lithium to drinking water supplies might then be feasible, although this would undoubtedly be subject to considerable debate.

“Following up on these findings will not be straightforward or inexpensive, but the eventual benefits for community mental health may be considerable,” he added.

The research certainly merits more investigation, according to Sophie Corlett, external relations director at the mental health charity Mind.

She said experts already know that lithium can be a powerful mood stabilizer for people with bipolar disorder, and treating people with lithium is also associated with decreased rates of suicide.

But she noted that lithium also has significant and unpleasant side effects in higher doses, and can even be toxic.

“Any suggestion that it should be added, even in tiny amounts, to drinking water should be treated with caution and researched very thoroughly,” she said.

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