Lithium is frequently discussed for its mental health benefits, but our exposure to it in water is becoming an increasing concern. Recent research indicates that lithium in water is an emerging concern in the United States as it is a possible environmental risk factor to health.
This article will discuss what lithium in water entails, how it gets there, what safe levels of lithium in your water are, and its potential health effects.
- Lithium occurs naturally in groundwater sources and is safe to consume in small amounts
- Concentrations of lithium in drinking water above 60 µg/L can pose a human health risk
- The EPA does not currently regulate lithium levels in water supply systems for public health risks
- The best method to test for lithium in your home’s water is to use a certified lab test kit
What Is Lithium In Water
Lithium is a naturally occurring alkali metal. We consume lithium through food, water, and pharmaceuticals, but it can be dangerous at higher levels. Our average daily consumption of food and drink is estimated to be 2 milligrams per day overall.
Most research focuses on lithium in groundwater, so not much is known about the concentrations of lithium compounds in surface water.
How Does Lithium Get Into Drinking Water
Lithium primarily occurs naturally in groundwater, as it mixes with lithium-containing minerals from rocks and sediments.
However, the increase in lithium concentrations in groundwater can be attributed to human activity extracting lithium for various industrial uses.
The primary sources of lithium in drinking water include:
- Naturally in groundwater from interactions with minerals
- Lithium carbonate from lithium-ion batteries and battery recycling
- Runoff from lithium mining operations
- Pharmaceuticals from drugs being flushed down the toilet human excretion
Because there is only one lithium mining operation in the US located in Silver Peak, Nevada, industrial contamination is not yet a significant concern. Although the use and disposition of lithium batteries is an increasing trend due to vehicle electrification.
Therefore, the main source of lithium originates from natural interactions in groundwater. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study found that higher lithium concentrations are found in older groundwater arid regions. The highest levels were found in western U.S. aquifer systems which collectively serve as the drinking water supply for nearly 10 million people.
Epidemiology And Environmental Health
Direct lithium extraction (DLE) can lead to the mixing with geothermal waters and brines, contaminating groundwater intended for human consumption. This process poses both environmental and downstream health concerns, especially since the demand for lithium is increasing. There is a need for the results of these extraction methods to be quantified.
Lithium has long been a sought-after mineral to develop lithium batteries. Notably, in recent years, the demand for renewable energy sources such as electric vehicles requires lithium hydroxide as well.
What Is A Safe Level Of Lithium In Drinking Water?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t have a set maximum contamination limit goal for lithium. The MCLG is based on data from health effects that do not exist for lithium.
Since there is no set MCLG, the USGS partnered with the EPA to use a nonregulatory Health-Based Screening Level to inform the public, which is 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L). However, a second “drinking-water-only” lithium benchmark of 60 µg/L can be used when it is assumed that the only source of lithium exposure is drinking water.
Based on this US Geological Survey screening level, their study concluded that concentrations frequently exceed the human-health benchmark. When looking at the concentration of lithium in groundwater from 33 aquifers throughout the country, 37% of domestic and 45% of public supply wells contain elevated levels of lithium that pose a health risk.
Because of the known data gap to regulate lithium, it falls under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, meaning that public water systems must collect samples from January 2023 through December 2025 to begin formulating a framework to address lithium in drinking water.
Is Lithium In Water Dangerous?
While a small amount of lithium naturally occurs in our drinking water, an elevated level of lithium in the drinking water supply is a potential environmental risk factor for health outcomes.
Lithium, specifically lithium chloride, is frequently used to treat psychiatric disorders. Some research has focused on the relationship between lithium in drinking water and suicide rates. There is even a public policy push to add lithium to drinking water for suicide prevention based on these findings.
A 2009 review of lithium’s effects on the blood and brain indicated that the effective dose range for lithium is 0.6-1.0 mM (millimolar) in serum and over 1.5 mM may lead to lithium toxicity. Extended lithium exposure over 2 mM may cause permanent brain damage.
Health complications that have been linked to prolonged lithium exposure include:
- Thyroid issues
- Skin disorders
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Cerebellar dysfunction
There has also been research into lithium and autism risk. A nationwide study in Denmark observed a moderate increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in offspring was related to higher maternal exposure. This may indicate that elevated exposure to lithium impacts the developing human brain.
How Do I Know There Is Lithium In My Water?
Measuring trace metals is not always an easy feat, but there are options should you be concerned about lithium compounds in your water supply. You can use do-it-yourself at home with a laboratory test kit, or simply use available data and insights to determine if your situation requires further testing. There are pros and cons to each option, and it should be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Laboratory Water Test Kit
The best method to test for lithium is to use a certified laboratory test kit. If you live in an area that has potentially high concentrations of lithium in drinking water, a water test kit will provide the most accurate and objective data.
I recommend using the Freshnss Labs water test kit, which tests not only lithium but also dozens of other contaminants. With this test kit, you simply collect a water sample from your home and send it back to the lab to be analyzed. Within 3 days you will receive a detailed report with the exact concentration of lithium and any health risks.
Your testing frequency will depend on factors like the type of water source, the presence of contaminants, and any changes in the water source.
Laboratory Water Test Kit
Analyzed in a certified laboratory
Includes detailed report with EPA benchmarking and safety concerns
Check Consumer Confidence Reports
Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR) are required under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This is based on the notion that consumers have the right to know where their water comes from and what is in it. Water utility providers test and report the water quality to the constituents once a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a guide to help Americans understand their CCR.
Check Lithium Groundwater Concentration Map
The USGS constructed a map representing lithium concentrations in groundwater (See figure 1 above). Viewers can use this data to identify lithium concentrations in public-supply wells throughout the US. If you live in an area identified as high-risk, you should consider testing your home’s water to ensure it is safe for consumption.
Which Water Treatment Can Remove Lithium From Water?
Common water treatment systems for lithium are ion exchange resins, reverse osmosis, and distillation. The level of treatment required will vary by situation and some situations may require pretreatment. Some treatments can be applied to point-of-use and some at a whole-house level.
Ion exchange removes unwanted lithium ions and replaces them with similar ions using strong acid cation resin (SAC). A resin is comprised of tiny microscopic beads that “filter” contaminants.
This is a popular method of lithium extraction both for environmental and health reasons. Compared to other treatment methods, is it cost-effective and provides quick results. However, it cannot remove all contaminants from water, like bacteria.
Reverse osmosis is a process that forces water through a semipermeable membrane with pores that are only .0001 microns in size. Although it may not completely remove lithium, reverse osmosis has been shown to reduce lithium in water by up to 99% making it safe for consumption.
Distillation involves boiling water to the point that it turns into water vapor and cooling it. This is done to contaminated water to remove any contaminants to create extremely pure water. Countertop water distillers are an affordable way to produce distilled water at home.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is lithium safe in drinking water?
Yes, drinking lithium is safe if the concentration is less than 60 µg/L, assuming that the only source of lithium exposure is drinking water.
Does bottled water contain lithium carbonate?
Because bottled water is frequently sourced from springs that contain high mineral content, they frequently contain lithium. Lithia Spring Water is a specific brand of bottled water that naturally contains lithium carbonate.
Where is lithium in drinking water?
Lithium reacts with granitic rocks that contain elevated levels of lithium concentration. Lithium can also be found in saltwater like continental brine water, and petrochemical field brines.
How do you remove lithium compounds in drinking water?
The best way to remove lithium compounds from drinking water is with reverse osmosis purification. Other treatment options include ion exchange and water distillation.