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Lithium in drinking water may prevent suicides

Study will test impact of adding lithium to water supply

Jo Carlowe

Friday, 27 June 2014

Lithium in the drinking water may prevent suicide, according to leading psychiatrists.

Scientists in Scotland are now set to test this theory. The research follows several recent international studies which have appeared to identify an ‘anti-suicidal effect’ in water supplies with high levels of lithium (the standard pharmaceutical treatment for bipolar disorder). 

“We have a considerable body of evidence that suggests that high levels of the chemical in the water supply could save lives,” says Professor Allan Young, Professor of Mood Disorders at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London.  

Lithium remains the standard treatment for bipolar disorder because of its dual ability to reduce the symptoms of mania, including impulsive behaviour, as well as depression. As such, it’s most robust impact is in halving the risk of suicide in people with bipolar disorder. 

“The key to lithium’s impact on reducing suicide as a pharmaceutical agent is in reducing impulsivity as well as depression,” Professor Young said, speaking at the Royal College of Psychiatrist's International Congress in London, this week. 

“We are now embarking on urgent research to establish the impact of taking low levels on lithium as medication, as well as adding lithium to the water supply in much the same way as fluoride is added to prevent tooth decay.”

So far two large studies in Texas and Japan, along with several smaller studies carried out between 1989 and 2013, have found that suicide rates are higher in areas where there are low levels of lithium in the drinking water. 

“If we can become deficient in calcium and zinc, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot become deficient in lithium,” said Dr Daniel Smith, Reader of Mental Health at the Institute of Health & Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow.

He is currently conducting a pilot study of lithium levels in Scotland.

“In Scotland, we have ideal conditions in which to carry out this research. A single organisation, Scottish Water is able to measure levels of lithium by postcode and we can make use of the excellent routine data which is available from sources such as the Scottish Health Survey and from the Information Services Division of NHS Scotland.”

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