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#1: Drug Our Drinking Water

Written by Subject: Water Issues-Water Fluoridation
#1: Drug Our Drinking Water

8/07/2010 UPDATE: The discussion in this post is continued at Death by Cruise Ship, Lithium, and Suicide.

Adding trace amounts of lithium to the drinking water could limit suicides. Two studies, a recent one in Japan and an older one in Texas, have shown that this naturally occurring substance, used as a psychotropic drug to combat bipolar disorder, could have beneficial effects for society: Communities with higher than average amounts of lithium in their drinking water had significantly lower suicide rates than communities with lower levels. Regions of Texas with lower lithium concentrations had an average suicide rate of 14.2 per 100,000 people, whereas those areas with naturally higher lithium levels had a dramatically lower suicide rate of 8.7 per 100,000.

The highest levels in Texas (150 micrograms of lithium per liter of water) are only a thousandth of the minimum pharmaceutical dose, and have no known deleterious effects.  If further studies continue to uncover no harmful side effects, bioethicist Jacob Appel believes that Washington should fortify all of our drinking water with lithium.

This wouldn't be the first time that the US government has spiked our drinking water. The government began adding fluoride to our water in the 1940s to fight tooth decay, and it has been hailed as a great public health achievement (saving more than $38 in dental bills for every $1 spent on fluoridation). Lithium, a psychotropic drug used to level out the manic and depressive swings associated with bipolar disorder, could do for suicide what fluoride did for cavities.

"We are not talking about adding therapeutic levels of lithium to the drinking water," Appel tells Big Think. "If you wanted to get a therapeutic level from the trace amounts that currently exist in the areas where there is already lithium, you would have to drink several Olympic size swimming pools.  So the reality is, these are very low levels, and there’s no reason to think they are not safe in the areas they already exist, so why not give everybody that benefit?" 

And if people don't want to take part, Appel argues, they can always opt out by drinking bottled water: "If the vast majority of people gain health benefits from fortifying the public water, and particularly if these benefits are life-saving, then there is nothing unreasonable about placing the burden not to drink upon the resistant minority," Appel wrote in The Huffington Post. "One person's right to drink lithium-free water is no greater than another's right to drink lithium-enhanced water. As long as the negative consequences or inconveniences are relatively minor, water fortification seems to be one of those cases where the majority's preference and interest should prevail."


Over 34,000 people in the US commit suicide each year, making it the fourth leading cause of death among Americans aged 18 to 65. If lithium were added to all US drinking water—and the effect were the same as in Texas's highest-lithium regions—the national suicide rate would drop to 20,831, saving over 13,000 lives.

Why We Should Reject This

Lithium is a much more powerful substance than fluoride, with far greater potential side effects.  Critics say that drugging the water is a massive infringement and equate this use of pharmaceuticals to something out of Aldous Huxley’s dystopic classic “Brave New World.”

Robert Carton, a former senior scientist for the EPA, argues that the government's fortifying drinking water with any substance, even fluoride, violates people's fundamental right—codified in the Nuremburg Code—to give informed consent to any medical intervention. “All ethical codes for the protection of individuals who are subject to medical procedures," Carton wrote in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, "whether research or routine medical treatment, endorse the basic requirement for voluntary informed consent.”

More Resources

—2009 Japanese study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

—1990 Texas study, published in Biological Trace Elements Research Journal.

—2003 article [PDF] from the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, co-authored by Robert Carton, arguing against fluoridation.

Part II of out discussion about drugging the drinking water can be found at Death by Cruise Ship, Lithium, and Suicide.


3 Comments in Response to

Comment by Donna Hancock
Entered on:

HMMM - Keep in mind that Lithium is a metal and I would imagine that if Lithium is taken for long periods of time that this metal will accumulate in the body. Just a thought. 

I looked on the internet to find side effects of taking Lithium, and they are listed below. Seems there are many concerns when taking Lithium, but you can read for yourself -----------------


More than with any other drug used in the treatment of mental disorders, it is essential to maintain lithium blood levels within a certain narrow range to derive the maximum therapeutic benefit while minimizing serious negative side effects. It is important that people taking lithium have their blood levels of lithium measured at regular intervals.


Because lithium intoxication may be serious and even life-threatening, blood concentrations of lithium should be measured weekly during the first four weeks of therapy and less often after that.

Patients taking lithium should have their thyroid function monitored and maintain an adequate sodium (salt) and water balance. Lithium should not be used or used only with very close physician supervision by people with kidney impairment, heart disease, and other conditions that affect sodium balance. Dosage reduction or complete discontinuation may be necessary during infection, diarrhea, vomiting, or prolonged fast. Patients who are pregnant, breast-feeding, those over age 60, and people taking diuretics ("water pills") should discuss the risks and benefits of lithium treatment with their doctor before beginning therapy. Lithium should be discontinued 24 hours before a major surgery, but may be continued normally for minor surgical procedures.

Side effects

Tremor is the most common neurological side effect. Lithium tremor is an irregular, non-rhythmic twitching of the arms and legs that is variable in both intensity and frequency. Lithium-induced tremor occurs in approximately half of persons taking this medication. The chance of tremor decreases if the dose is reduced. Acute lithium toxicity (poisoning) can result in neurological side effects, ranging from confusion and coordination impairment, to coma, seizures , and death. Other neurological side effects associated with lithium therapy include lethargy, memory impairment, difficulty finding words, and loss of creativity.

About 30 to 35% of patients experience excessive thirst and urination, usually due to the inability of the kidneys to retain water and sodium. However, lithium is not known to cause kidney damage.

Lithium inhibits the synthesis of thyroid hormone. About 10 to 20% of patients treated with lithium develop some degree of thyroid insufficiency, but they usually do not require supplementation with thyroid hormone tablets.

Gastrointestinal side effects include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. Weight gain is another common side effect for patients receiving long-term treatment. Changes in saliva flow and enlargement of the salivary glands may occur. An increase in tooth cavities and the need for dental care among patients taking lithium has been reported.

Skin reactions to lithium are common but can usually be managed without discontinuing lithium therapy. Lithium may worsen folliculitis (inflammation of hair follicle), psoriasis, and acne. Thinning of the hair may occur, and, less commonly, hair loss may be experienced. Swollen feet are an uncommon side effect that responds to dose reduction.

Electrocardiographic (EKG) abnormalities may occur with lithium therapy, but significant cardiovascular effects are uncommon except as the result of deliberate or accidental overdose.

A mild-to-moderate increase in the number of white blood cells is a frequent side effect of lithium. Conversely, lithium may slow the formation of red blood cells and cause anemia.

Increased risk of fetal cardiovascular disease may be associated with the use of lithium during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester (first three months). For this reason, once a woman becomes pregnant, lithium should be discontinued until the second or third trimester and the patient receives alternative treatments for her mania.

Comment by Joe Plummer
Entered on:

Some people have high cholesterol. Should we dose the water with cholesterol-lowering drugs because it could "save lives." Some people abuse (even kill) their children. Should all children be taken away and raised by the state (nevermind the abuse they'd suffer there) because it could "save lives?"

 Does anyone REALLY accept these insane arguments? ...that you impose a "corrective action" on everyone despite the fact that only a tiny percentage will (supposedly) benefit from it?

Comment by Glenn Jacobs
Entered on:

If you go to the grocery store, there are all sorts of different kinds of what from which to choose.  You have spring water, distilled water, flavored water, still water, and carbonated water.  It is only when the government provides a service that consumers only have one choice.

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