Apr. 5, 2011 -- The Andes Mountains are rich in elements, as indicated by the large copper mines in Chile and Peru, among others. In several countries, such as Bolivia, lithium is also extracted. According to occupational and environmental physician Karin Broberg from Lund University in Sweden, these elements are not just a resource but also an environmental risk.
"The amounts of lithium that the Latin American women are ingesting via their drinking water are perhaps a tenth of what a patient would take daily for bipolar disorder. But, on the other hand, they are absorbing this lithium all their lives, even from before birth," she said.
Lithium is an element used in batteries and also for medication, as an established and common treatment for bipolar disorder.
"What this implies for their health, we don't really know in practice. That is why we are planning a new study which will compare the health of two groups of mothers and children: respectively, the ones with the highest and lowest levels of lithium in their blood."
Researchers are concerned the women are at an elevated risk for hypothyroidism, a metabolic disorder characterized by weight gain, fatigue, depression, sensitivity to cold and memory loss.
Broberg was involved in an earlier research effort involving the same mountain villages in the Salta province in Northwest Argentina. In that study, high levels of arsenic, lithium, cesium, rubidium and boron were found in the drinking water and in the urine of the women there.
"Lifelong ingestion of arsenic and lithium brings a clear health risk. What the ingestion of the other substances implies is not known, because there is very little research on their role in ordinary drinking water," she says.