Somebody’s Poisoned the Waterhole! Adding Lithium to Public Water

If you drive around Bartlesville, you will notice a few things. First, Bartians really like food (evident by the amount of restaurants compared to any other form of entertainment). Considering that there is a church on almost every corner in Bartlesville, we must also really like churches. If there are so many churches in this town, why is our rate of suicide so high?Suicide is quickly becoming a dire issue not just in Bartlesville but nationwide; the New York Times reports that more people die by suicide than in car accidents today.


Some would suggest that the problem is not what is in our water, but what isn’t. A recent article in the New York Times entitled, “Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?” suggests that adding lithium, a naturally occurring element in water, could benefit communities by lowering suicide rates. Although this sounds drastic to some, as the article points out, “Evidence is slowly accumulating that relatively tiny doses of lithium can have beneficial effects. They appear to decrease suicide rates significantly and may even promote brain health and improve mood”. Still not convinced that lithium should be added to your water? As Anna Fels notes, lithium is already present in ground water but present at levels that are barely detectable to “less than a thousandth of the minimum daily dose given for bipolar disorders and for depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants.”

Lithium, periodic table
Lithium is the third element in the periodic table of elements.

Fels writes that although research has been done that suggests that lithium in water could be beneficial to the public, most people are unaware of the possible benefits, including those in the realm of psychology and psychiatry. In the 1970s researchers found that animals whose water supply contained small amounts of lithium had abnormalities in behavior and reproduction compared to animals whose water supply contained more lithium. As a result of that study, researchers began to wonder if higher levels of lithium would help humans too. In 1990, the water supply in 27 Texas counties was tested for lithium and researchers found that in areas with lower levels of lithium the rate of suicide, rape, and homicide was more likely to be significantly greater than in areas with 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.” Studies in Japan have also suggested that levels of lithium in public water supplies inversely correlate with suicide rates.

Picture of Lithium.
Should lithium be added to public water supplies?

Some are not entirely sure why lithium is beneficial, but many psychiatrists agree that it seems as though lithium protects and encourages neuron growth. Fels writes, “Patients with mood disorders have been shown to have rates of dementia higher than those of the general population.” Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and proponent of lithium awareness in the psychiatric community notes, “Lithium is, by far, the most proven drug to keep neurons alive, in animals and in humans, consistently and with many replicated studies.” And, he added, “If lithium prevents dementia, then we may have overlooked a very simple means of preventing a major public health problem.” However, Fels writes that she has observed stigmas associated with taking lithium because of its long history in treating mental disorders.

In 2011, an influential psychiatrist in Dublin made headlines when he very publicly proposed adding lithium to public water in Ireland.  Dr. Bhamjee said, “studies conducted in Texas and Japan noted a correlation between areas with relatively high rates of naturally occurring lithium in the water supply and areas with low rates of suicide and depression”. Studies have also been done that have found no correlation, but Dr. Bhamjee insists more research must be done, “I’m not giving up on it. More research is being done around the world all the time.”

Lithium as an element
Lithium occurs naturally in sea water, ground water, and some food.

With suicide rates in Washington county being more than one and a half times the national average and suicide being the leading cause of death for young people in this county, adding lithium to public water supplies is certainly an interesting idea and may be an idea worth pursuing.

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