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Willie Viverette Group

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Edward Ovchinnikov
Edward Ovchinnikov

Buy Lithium Water

Several strong epidemiological studies have demonstrated that regions of the world where the element lithium occurs naturally in the drinking water have lower suicide rates. (The current proposed theory is that lithium is a protective factor in brain development, so it may take decades for the benefits of such lithium exposure to pay off in suicide prevention.) No known negative side effects have been associated with trace lithium exposure, but few long-term studies have been conducted to detect such risks.

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The epidemiological studies on lithium have drawn the attention of Otis, the mayor of a small English city that has one of the highest suicide rates in the Western world. Otis proposes adding trace amounts of lithium to the drinking water in his community to see if this intervention will help. He believes this might, in the long run, prevent up to 50 unnecessary deaths each year. "If you don't want to be exposed to lithium," says Otis, "you can always buy bottled water."

"It's really, really a beautiful place," says Marcelo Valdebenito, a public relations officer for Albemarle Corp., the Charlotte, N.C.-based chemical company that operates the mine. "This is the lithium that powers the world."

Indeed, the world is hungry for the silvery-white metal. The International Energy Agency is projecting a more than 40-fold increase in demand for lithium by 2040. Lithium prices have hit record highs this year.

Left: Lithium mines extract groundwater brine that is 10 times saltier than seawater. It is evaporated over 18 months into a 6% lithium solution. Center: Piles of salt, a byproduct of the evaporation process. Right: A sample of lithium concentrate ready to be transported to a plant for purification. Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR hide caption

Despite growing concerns about the environmental impact of lithium extraction, skyrocketing demand is good news for mining companies in Chile. The South American country is the second-largest lithium producer after Australia. And Argentina, Bolivia and Chile are known as the "lithium triangle," together holding more than half of the world's proven lithium reserves.

Bolivian President Luis Arce has pledged to make his country "the world capital of lithium" and supply 40% of global demand for the metal by 2030. But due to technological challenges and community resistance, as well as heavy state intervention in the economy, the industry has been slow to develop. Production in Bolivia remains negligible.

Left: Workers monitor the 150 precipitation pools at the Albemarle mine. Center and right: Salt, a byproduct of the brine evaporation process, is piled up at the Albemarle lithium mine in the Atacama Desert on Aug. 24. Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR hide caption

They include microbiologist Cristina Dorador, who has spent years studying the salt flats of the Atacama Desert. She says lithium mines extract huge amounts of groundwater. Ten-times saltier than seawater, this brine is then placed in enormous evaporation pools. After 18 months, the resulting 6% lithium solution is then turned into a white lithium powder and exported for use in batteries.

Another critic is Andrés Díaz, who directs the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at Diego Portales University in Santiago, the Chilean capital. Instead of just lithium, he thinks Chile should produce and export higher-valued lithium-ion batteries that the country currently imports from Asia at a steep cost.

Mehech acknowledges that lithium mining uses a lot of groundwater but claims the tradeoff is worth it. He points out that the amount of water required to produce enough lithium for an electric car battery is about the same amount needed to produce a half pound of beef or 11 avocados.

People are once again bringing their hopes, dreams and illnesses to this little community, seeking fulfillment and cure in the spring water that long ago was medicine and thirst-quencher for Cherokees.

Such claims helped overcome a slightly alkaline taste and created a boom in bottled lithium water over a century ago. The only lithium springs in the United States spawned a resort, including a golf course and the sumptuous Sweetwater Park Hotel, that drew the rich and ill in droves.

Hard times soon hit. The hotel burned down in 1912. The federal Food and Drug Administration banned the extravagant advertising claims. Public enthusiasm for lithia water began to wane, and by the 1940s bottling ceased.

But business is bubbling again here. In 1983, history aficionado Gleda James, along with other investors, bought the springs and resumed bottling. Mineral water sales--now the fastest growing segment in the beverage industry--were taking off and the Lithia Springs Water Co., benefiting from the legacy of those legendary claims, took off even faster. The company will double its sales to over a million gallons this year.

Tourists and locals alike make their way here--sometimes to buy the water as part of their effort to cure illnesses doctors are having little success treating, and sometimes to simply reassure themselves that the springs, like their memories, still exist.

Doctors today are likely to recommend it only if you are thirsty. But lithium pills are prescribed for depression, and it follows, say some lithium-water drinkers, that the water must have some of the same properties.

From these findings it has been suggested that Li should be added to public drinking water supplies to improve the mental health of the general population, although this would be premature and raises ethical concerns [31] and further research on this subject is necessary.

Lithium doses used for mental health treatment are considerably higher than those obtained from daily exposure to Li in tap water. This raises questions regarding whether (an increased) daily intake of Li from tap water can reduce the risk of suicide or otherwise be beneficial towards the mental health of the population. As reported above, tap water is not the only liquid dietary source of Li and the earlier discussed studies did not take it into account.

Several studies have shown that various bottled waters are rich in Li; the highest values reported (9860 and 5450 µg Li/L) were from bottled waters from Slovakia [32] and Armenia (Hankavan-Lithia: 5.45 mg Li/L). Mineral waters such as Vichy Catalan (1.3 mg Li/L) and Evian (6.6 µg Li/L) were initially also promoted as Li waters based on their Li content [33].

Bottled water plays a more and more important role in daily life. The worldwide bottled water consumption is characterized by a significant growth over the last decade. Its consumption is still increasing [34], especially in developed countries, even though tap water quality is good and several orders of magnitudes less expensive than bottled water. Although all bottled waters might look the same, in fact each natural mineral or spring water has its own distinctive taste, a unique set of properties and a specific chemical composition at the source from where it is extracted, that reflects the geological characteristics of the region and water-rock interactions occurring at depth. Moreover, the defining characteristics of naturally sourced waters are reflected in their protected origin status and are guaranteed by strict European Union (EU) legislation governing the extraction and packaging of the product [35].

The EU has laid down specific rules for natural mineral and spring waters, which clearly set them apart from drinking water, more commonly known as tap water [36]. Lithium is one of the elements for which no potable water standards are defined in Europe. In Australia Li is listed as a pollutant that causes environmental harm and it is limited to 2.5 mg/L for general irrigation and to a limit of 0.075 g/L for the irrigation of citrus cultures, respectively [37].

Bottled water in the EU is predominantly made up of the natural mineral water category [35]. The bottling and commercialization of natural mineral waters first began in Europe in the mid-16th century, with the mineral waters from Spa in Belgium, Vichy in France, Ferrarelle in Italy, and Apollinaris in Germany.

In Portugal, like in other countries, natural mineral and spring waters have always aroused great interest due to their exceptional quality, diversity, and health-friendly effects. In 2018, the Portuguese per capita consumption of bottled waters was 134 L/year, which is the 7th highest European Union average consumption (EU average is 119 L/year) [35].

According to Portuguese Legislation [39] natural mineral waters (the subject of this study) are bacteriologically pure waters, of underground circulation, with stable physico-chemical characteristics at the source within the range of natural fluctuations and which may result in possible therapeutic properties or favorable health effects. Spring waters are also natural waters of underground circulation, bacteriologically pure, which do not have the characteristics necessary for qualification as natural mineral waters, provided that at the source they are suitable for drinking.

All studied natural mineral waters were purchased in supermarkets and local shops. Regarding the type of packaging, nine of the natural mineral waters were bottled in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and ten in glass bottles. It is not expected that the content of Li and other trace element under study in these mineral waters can be affected by bottled material leaching. According some experiments [32] this becomes problematic for Sb in PET bottles and for Pb, Cr and Ce in glass bottles at acid pH but not for Li.

Considering the major ions present (expressed as percentage of the total mEq/L), the natural mineral waters under study are mainly of the Na-HCO3 type, follow by the Na-Cl type (Salutis, Vitalis, Caldas de Penacova and Luso) and Ca-HCO3 type (Castello and Melgaço) (Table 1 and Figure 2).

Piper Diagram showing the chemical composition of the studied Portuguese natural mineral waters (water type legend: Ca-HCO3 (triangles); Na-Cl (circles), Na-HCO3 (squares); low and high Li content (open and closed symbols, respectively); sample identification (number) as indicated in Table 1). 041b061a72


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