The Corner


Drug Our Drinking Water with Lithium?

Plastic bottles of mineral water are seen on the bottling line at the Abatilles factory in Arcachon, France, October 10, 2018. (Regis Duvignau/REUTERS)

Good grief. Some big-brains want to see if some suicides can be prevented by drugging our drinking water with lithium. From the “Future Perfect” column by Dylan Matthews in Vox:

If you apply that 50 to 60 percent reduction to the US, where about 45,000 people total died by suicide in 2016, you get a total number of lives saved at around 22,500 to 27,000 a year. That’s likely too high, since you can’t reduce suicide rates in places that are already high-lithium. Ghaemi’s own back-of-the-envelope calculation is that we’d save 15,000 to 25,000.

Ghaemi and a number of other eminent psychiatrists are making a pretty remarkable claim. They think we could save tens of thousands of lives a year with a very simple, low-cost intervention: putting small amounts of lithium, amounts likely too small to have significant side effects, into our drinking water, the way we put fluoride in to protect our teeth

Note the term “significant side effects.” But lithium can cause havoc with the body.

Ah, what the heck, Matthews writes — nothing ventured, nothing gained:

These recent studies have made me less confident in the link between lithium and lower suicide rates than I was when I first encountered Ghaemi’s research. But it’s such a cheap intervention, and the odds of serious side effects sound low enough, that it seems worth a try.

At the very least, I’d love for some governments to conduct real, bona fide experiments on lithium. Maybe a state could randomly add lithium to some of its reservoirs but not others, or, conversely, a high-lithium state could try removing it from the water. There are serious ethical questions about doing experiments like this that affect whole populations, but if lithium’s effect is real and we don’t pursue it because we lack compelling enough evidence, thereby endangering thousands of people — that’s an ethical problem too.

No. It’s not.

Matthews blames the far Right’s overreaction to fluoride in the 1950s for the failure of scientists to conduct studies by having a “state randomly add lithium to some of its reservoirs” to see what happens. (!) But there is a huge distinction between fluoride — a harmless mineral that protects tooth enamel — and a powerful psychotropic substance used to treat bipolar disease, among other mental illnesses!

If we really want to reduce suicide — and sometimes I wonder whether we do — we will increase our focus on mental health and restore suicide-prevention programs as a top-tier societal priority. The media will cease glamorizing and normalizing euthanasia cases. Society will also reject the legalization of assisted suicide, which gives the states explicit imprimatur to some suicides and promotes self-killing as a splendid answer to the problems of serious illness and disability.