Argentina is one of the world's biggest producers of lithium, an element found in large deposits throughout the Andes, along with other minerals. Now, scientists at Lund University have discovered that high levels of the substance is finding its way into drinking water used by villagers in the area.
Lithium, which in the past has been used to treat bipolar syndrome, in large cumulative doses, can affect the thyroid adversely and lead to hypothyroidism, which, in turn can lead to metabolic disorders such as weight gain, depression and memory loss. Although the amount of lithium being ingested is in very small doses, it occurs over the lifetime of the individual, even while in the womb, and builds up in tissue over time to dangerous levels.
One of the most interesting aspects of the tests was that they were carried out using mass spectrometry, rather than traditional techniques that only allow testing for one specific substance. As well as high levels of lithium, spot urine samples showed much higher normal levels of other elements such as arsenic, cesium, rubidium and borium.
This gives rise to the problem that no one really knows the effect of the build up of other ground elements present in water that has filtered through mountains with a high mineral content.
However, as Karin Broburg from Lund University points out, the tests do show that there is a good case for mass spectrometry to be used routinely for drinking water sampling throughout the world:
'Groundwater has in many places been considered better to drink than the often polluted water from lakes and rivers, But, in Bangladesh, this has caused enormous health problems, when it turned out that the water from drilled wells contained arsenic. Very little is known about the concentration of lithium and other dangerous substances in the groundwater around the world, so this should be measured.'