Study Links Tap Water to a Higher Autism Risk

Study Links Tap Water to a Higher Autism Risk

According to a new study by a UCLA Health researcher, pregnant women whose tap water had greater levels of lithium had a slightly increased probability of having children who were diagnosed with autism.

The research, which was released in JAMA Pediatrics, is thought to be the first one ever to link lithium in drinking water to an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder.

Beate Ritz, who is the study’s lead author, says that “Any drinking water contaminants that might affect the developing brain deserve intense scrutiny. In the future, anthropogenic sources of lithium in the water mght become more widespread because of lithium battery use and landfill disposal with the potential for groundwater contamination. The results of our research are based on high quality Danish data but need to be replicated in different populations and areas of the world.”

Some lithium compounds have been used for a long time as a therapy for depression and bipolar disorders due to the mood-stabilizing properties of lithium.

However, there is controversy about whether pregnant women can safely take lithium due to mounting data showing it raises the chance of miscarriage and may cause heart abnormalities or malformations in babies.

Ritz said that after learning that there had been little study on how lithium affects brain development, she was inspired to look into the potential link between its occurrence and the chance of developing autism.

She did learn, though, that a few experimental studies had shown lithium, one of the several naturally occurring metals typically found in water, could have an effect on a significant biochemical pathway linked to neurodevelopment and autism.

Zeyan Liew, the study’s first author, went on to add that the research was crucial since previous studies from Denmark utilizing top-notch medical registry data had previously demonstrated how consumption of low-dose lithium from alcohol might affect the incidence of adult-onset neuropsychiatric diseases.

However, no research has been done to determine whether pregnant women’s water consumption of lithium impacts the neurodevelopment of their unborn children.

Ritz and Liew collaborated with Danish scientists who examined lithium concentrations in 151 public waterworks that serve almost half of the population of that nation.

The researchers analyzed address data from Denmark’s extensive civil registry system to determine which waterworks serviced mothers’ residences at the time of their pregnancies.

The research team identified infants born between 1997 and 2013 using a national database of patients with mental problems, and they compared 12,799 of those with an autism diagnosis against 63,681 of those without one.

The study’s authors also took into account maternal traits, a few socioeconomic variables, and air pollution exposure, all of which have been associated with a higher risk of autism in offspring.

The chance of receiving an autism diagnosis increased along with lithium levels, according to the study.

Lithium levels were linked to an increased risk of autism/ In comparison to the lowest quartile, the risk was 46 percent greater in the top quartile.

When the information was split down by autism subtypes, the researchers discovered a similar correlation between elevated lithium levels and an increased probability of being diagnosed with the illness.

They also discovered that compared to people who lived in smaller cities and rural regions, the link between lithium levels and the risk of autism was somewhat greater for those who lived in metropolitan areas.

Denmark was the right location for this study due to a number of characteristics, including its extensive civil databases, which have shown to be significant tools for public health researchers.

Denmark is among the European countries with the lowest bottled water use, hence tap water is widely used by Danes.

The nation also has a reliable mechanism for detecting toxins like trace metals in its water supply. According to Ritz, Denmark’s water has low to moderate lithium concentrations compared to other nations.


Katherine is just getting her start as a journalist. She attended a technical school while still in high school where she learned a variety of skills, from photography to nutrition. Her enthusiasm for both natural and human sciences is real so she particularly enjoys covering topics on medicine and the environment.

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