Lithium levels in drinking water linked to fewer suicides

Photo by Flickr user Today is a good day. Click for sourceHigher levels of naturally occurring lithium in the water supply are associated with fewer suicides in the local population, reports a study just published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

Lithium is one of the fundamental elements, but is also used by psychiatrists as one the most effective drug treatment for mood disorders, in the form of lithium carbonate and lithium citrate, where it is also known to reduce the risk of suicide.

This new study suggests that even trace amounts might have an influence on the whole population level, and this is not the first time this link has been made.

A 1990 study found higher levels of lithium in drinking water were linked to fewer incidences of crimes, suicides, and arrests related to drug addictions.

This leads to the intriguing question of whether lithium should be added to the water supply as a public health measure.

The idea of adding psychoactive substances to the water supply sounds creepy, but some might argue that if we add fluoride simply to prevent tooth decay, boosting lithium concentrations to the high end of naturally occurring levels to reduce deaths could be justified.

Philosophers and conspiracy theorists start your engines.

Link to BJP lithium study.
Link to DOI entry for same.


  1. Posted May 1, 2009 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    No drugs in the water please. The brain is much more complex than teeth, and fluoride hardens the outside of teeth.

  2. Posted May 2, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Also, there’s a difference between providing a substance which helps the body work optimally and one which affects a change from normal body chemistry. So no. Not a good idea.

  3. Posted May 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I say no flouride. My question about flouride is that when you go to the dentist, they put flouride on your teeth for several minutes, and tell you not to swallow. I know it’s in higher concentrations, but if you are constantly ingesting flouride, I suspect it may be bad for you. Flouride affects brain function, and it may affect other things
    For the same reason you would argue not to put a chemical such as lithium in the drinking water, flouride should not be there. There are even conflicting studies about whether it helps and what optimal flouridation means.
    And the fact that they sell gallon jugs of “baby water” with flouride in it (for their teeth?!) makes me think that this whole flouride thing isn’t as regulated or well thought out as they say.

    Posted May 3, 2009 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I have heard that the psychiatric uses of lithium were discovered in the WWII period in Australia. Apparently, because of rationing, lithium was used as a salt replacement. Observations were made that during this period admissions to psychiatric hospitals and suicides declined; research linked the statistical declines to generalized use of lithium. Not sure if this is apocryphal, though!

  5. StunnedMullet
    Posted May 3, 2009 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    No additives eh?
    So let’s change the question slightly….
    So grain is not just “carbohydrates” pure and simple. It’s a mix of stuff. Is it OK to remove naturally occurring “drugs” from it?
    Well, every nutritionist I know of rants and rails against the evils of pure white flour.
    So which natural stream is pure unmineralized H2O? None.
    So why is it OK to remove the natural occurring “drugs” from it? Maybe we need a bit of lithium and flouride to live. Maybe we shouldn’t just say “NO”, but say, “Switch brain on and evaluate properly… and then maybe say “No, not in general, but maybe there is a need for specific cases and places”.

  6. Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I agree. If some people are deprived of lithium as a result of the local geology, then why not supplement if the result is fewer suicides and mental illness? Suppose there were a natural substance that entered the water supply in some parts of the world and *caused* suicide. Everyone would want it removed. Doing the reverse is no different.

  7. Posted May 5, 2009 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    It is a tough call. Neuron ion channels “prefer” lithium to sodium. This raises an interesting clinical question regarding ultra low dose lithium. In theory this is interesting, as anything other than ultra low dose is for all practical purposes toxic.

  8. Posted May 5, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Yes the pros and cons still need to be weighed carefully. While the BBC report is well written there is also a good report on this from the Telegraph published on 30th April:
    For the orginal article in the British Journal of Psychiatry see:

  9. Posted May 6, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Modern science has proven fluoridation to be a dismal failure. It is proof that nothing should be put into the drinking water for the purpose of treating people.
    No two people are alike and an entire population should not be prescribed a drug (or a nutrient) without consideration of their own bioindividuality, age, health, drug interactions, or need.
    Over 2,400 professionals urge the US Congress to stop water fluoridation until Congressional hearings are conducted, citing scientific evidence that fluoridation, long promoted to fight tooth decay, is ineffective and has serious health risks. See statement:
    Also, eleven Environmental Protection Agency employee unions representing over 7000 environmental and public health professionals called for a moratorium on drinking water fluoridation programs across the country, and have asked EPA management to recognize fluoride as posing a serious risk of causing cancer in people.
    Join them at http://congress.FluorideAction.Net

  10. rarecactus
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    According to Wikipedia, “common side effects of lithium treatment include muscle tremors, twitching, ataxia. Long term use is linked to hyperparathyroidism, hypercalcemia (bone loss), hypertension, kidney damage, nephrogenic diabetes insipidus (polyuria and polydipsia) and seizures. Some of the side-effects are a result of the increased elimination of potassium.” And: “Pregnancy – teratogenic properties…”
    And then elsewhere in the article:
    Therapeutically useful amounts of lithium (~ 0.6 to 1.2 mmol/l) are only slightly lower than toxic amounts (>1.5 mmol/l), so the blood levels of lithium must be carefully monitored during treatment to avoid toxicity.
    If you want to have the drugs-in-the-water-supply debate, at least pick a drug that has a reasonable theraputic index. I don’t think we have to bring out the philosophical big guns to shoot this down.

  11. andeys3
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    No chemicals added to my water, please. This is exactly why i believe that it’s so important to have a filtration system for your cooking and drinking water. Honestly, I realize that this may be beneficial for a small minority, but I make it a point to not take medications if I don’t absolutely need it. I got a decent filter, and I feel better knowing that I can at least make sure that I don’t drink stuff that’s not water. Honestly, everyone who doesn’t want to drink chemicals and medicine should get one.

  12. Don C
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Lithium use in Psychiatry has been falsely considered a “miracle” drug over the last several decades. It is now known to cause kidney disease in long term use and is very dangerous.
    Many Psychiatrists continue it’s long term use on patients with kidney problems and lie about kidney function test results.
    This is cut and dried malpractice, however lawsuits are very rare. When lawyers are contacted they do not take cases involving lithium.
    The “hidden” medical community conspires to “stomp out” all mention of lithium kidney failure and they are very very powerful. And today there is still much misunderstanding about mental illness.
    After all, Tom Cruse the number one movie star was fired by the movie industry for speaking out against Psychiatry on the TODAY show.

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