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Identifying Lithium in Drinking Water: A Possible Risk Factor for Autism


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Scientists have found a link between lithium levels in the Danish water supply and an increased risk that children later develop autism.

Although a study of 52,706 children is not enough to prove that lithium directly causes autism, this possibility is plausible and deserves further study. Lithium is a naturally occurring element and a widely used drug for the treatment of mood disorders. Miscarriages and heart defects in newborns were previously associated with the name “lithium”. For the first time, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been associated with this.

In their study, the researchers wrote: “In this population-based study from Denmark, the research team found that maternal exposure to higher levels of lithium in drinking water during pregnancy was associated with a modest increase in the risk of ASD in children. offspring. The conclusions remain. remains compelling even after adjusting for many socioeconomic factors associated with maternal exposure and exposure to air pollution.”

Lithium usually ends up in drinking water as a result of weathering (corrosion) of minerals underground. Compared to other countries, levels of metals in drinking water in Denmark are moderate to low.

The researchers used patient databases and civil registry information to determine the status of children born between 2000 and 2013 with or without a diagnosis of ASD, mapped from 151 different public waterworks (representing the water supply for about half of the country’s population).

Lithium concentrations in water were divided into four equal parts, with prenatal lithium exposure determined for each quadrant. Levels in the second and third quartiles were associated with a 24-26 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with autism than those in the lowest quartile. In the highest quartile, this level of risk was 46% higher.

Of the 8,842 study participants diagnosed with autism, 2,850 came from areas where lithium levels in drinking water were in the highest quartile, compared to 1,718 from the lowest quartile.

A similar link was found when researchers looked at individual subtypes of autism. The association between lithium and autism was also slightly stronger in people living in urban areas compared to rural areas and small towns. The team added controls for some socio-economic factors and air pollution.

“In the future, anthropogenic sources of lithium in water may become more common due to the use of lithium batteries and their disposal in landfills with potential groundwater contamination,” says neuroscientist and epidemiologist Pete Ritz of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Lithium is known to be able to cross the placenta and the fetal blood-brain barrier, and its ability to influence specific signaling pathways in the developing brain has already been investigated.

It’s a complex picture: lithium is also widely used as a mood stabilizer to treat people with bipolar disorder and depression. High levels of lithium in drinking water have also been linked to lower suicide rates, leading to arguments that the element could be artificially added to the water supply.

Further exploration of this relationship will require further research to go beyond the scope of the study. In the future, researchers could, for example, consider water consumption instead of using a local drinking water source as a means of assessing exposure.

“Any drinking water contaminant that could affect human brain development deserves close attention,” says Ritz. “The results of our study are based on high-quality Danish data, but need to be replicated for other populations and regions of the world.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Source: Science Alert

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