A Chemical Hunger – Interlude H: Well Well Well


A while back, one of us was talking to a family member about the improperly sealed abandoned boreholes in the Gila River Valley, and how oilfield brines are really high in lithium. This inspired him to speculate that while most of us don’t live near improperly sealed abandoned boreholes, there is a different kind of hole in the ground that many of us interact with every day — the wells we draw our water from.

There are a couple of things that make water wells seem kind of suspicious. When it comes to obesity, we’re looking for something that’s really universal, something that would reach pretty much everyone, because every part of the world is becoming more obese all the time. Maybe some people have oilfield brines in their water, sure. But not everyone is downriver from a pipeline.

Well, back in the day, nobody got their water from deep, drilled wells. Nowadays, millions of people drink well water every single day. The USGS estimates that 115 million people, more than one-third of the nation’s population, rely on groundwater for drinking water, and that 43 million of those people are drinking from private wells. And just because you aren’t drinking well water doesn’t mean you’re not affected — when all those wells bring up water from the depths, it ends up mixing with the surface water. 

This could represent a pretty big change in the ecosystem. You might think of groundwater as just normal water — maybe more pure, but still just water. But often it’s not like surface water at all. Some of the water flowing underground has been there only for a few weeks, but some of that water has been down there for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years. 

Generally speaking, the deeper the well, the older the water you’re drawing. But sometimes even relatively shallow wells draw from very old waters. For example, this analysis from Alberta suggests that in the Paskapoo Formation aquifers, “a very important source of water for irrigation and drinking in southwestern Alberta,” some water samples drawn from relatively shallow depths (less than 60 meters) are more than 1,000,000 years old.

Who knows what might be down there. The USGS helpfully notes, “old groundwater is more likely than young groundwater to have contaminants from natural sources, such as metals and radionuclides, because old groundwater can spend thousands of years in contact with and reacting with aquifer rocks and minerals that might contain these elements.” If water from drilled wells tends to have more lithium in it than water from shallow wells or surface water does, that would explain why people are exposed to more lithium now than they used to be, and could explain why the exposure is so universal. 

Artist’s rendition of Paskapoo Formation wells in Alberta, Canada

Basic well-drilling technology first arose in the early 1800s. We can take as an example Levi Disbrow, who according to some sources drilled the first artesian well in the United States in 1824. Things took a leap forward in 1909 when a patent for the first roller cone drill bit was issued to Howard Hughes Sr. — but even then, drilling tools were all still platform-based, and impractical for homeowners. It wasn’t until the 1940s that portable drills became effective, and it took until the 1970s for drilled wells to become common for individual homes. 

Most states keep pretty good records for drilled wells, so we’re able to confirm this with publicly available data. Rather than trying to hunt down data for every state, we did some spot checks. For example, Massachusetts keeps a database of wells dating back to 1962. Looking just at new, domestic wells, we see that about 96% were drilled in 1970 or later, and about 91% were drilled in 1980 or later. The two biggest decades for domestic drilling in Massachusetts were the 1990s and the 2000s, when about 37,000 wells were drilled each decade.

In Vermont, well drillers have been required to submit reports to the state on each well they drill since 1966, but there are some records dating as far back as 1924. We found that of the wells in the database, 96% had been drilled since 1970, and 83% had been drilled since 1980. Again, the two decades with the most well drilling were the 1990s and 2000s.

Since we mentioned bioaccumulation in plants last time, we also want to mention that a lot of crops these days are irrigated with water from drilled wells. Without getting too much into the details, it looks like most irrigation wells were also drilled pretty recently. In Kansas for example, it looks like only five of the irrigation wells on record were drilled before 1970, compared to about 22,000 wells drilled afterwards! 

The timeline for drilled wells lines up pretty well with the timeline for the spread of obesity. These days lots of people get their water from drilled wells, but that’s historically weird. If well water contains more lithium than surface water does, and lithium causes obesity, that would explain why obesity is so widespread.

The second reason this seems plausible is that similar things have happened with well-drilling and other contaminants. Let’s look at one well-documented example (h/t Phil Wagner):

It was the best intentions of governments and world bodies in the 1970s to improve health that led to the crisis in Bangladesh. Until the 1980s, most villagers drew water from shallow wells, or collected it from ponds and rivers – and regularly suffered cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. 

In response to these preventable illnesses, the UN and many western donors advised Bangladesh to bore deeper “tube wells” into the underground water aquifers to draw clean, pathogen-free water. But the scientists and donors advised drilling to about 150ft (46m) – almost precisely the depth of arsenic-rich rock. 

The first cases of arsenic poisoning were discovered in the early 1990s, and, in 1995, an international conference in Kolkata drew the world’s attention to the problem.

Efforts have been made to do something about this, but it still seems to be a huge problem. This report from the Human Rights Watch in 2016 says that “an estimated 43,000 people die each year from arsenic-related illness in Bangladesh”.

Similar contamination can be found elsewhere. In parts of India, wells are contaminated with uranium.

Third and finally, we want to point to a few examples that indicate that lithium specifically might be a problem in deep, drilled wells. The first is a passage from Sievers & Cannon (1973), the Gila River Valley paper, about where the Pima got their home drinking water:

Wells, the main source of domestic water, have needed deepening because the ground-water table has dropped at least 20 feet in the last few years. The lower aquifers now in use produce water of higher salt content than previously.

They don’t quite say it outright, but this suggests that the Pima wouldn’t have been exposed to as much lithium if they hadn’t deepened their wells. The lower aquifers have a higher salt content, and this likely includes dissolved lithium salts.

An even clearer example can be found in this paper about lithium levels in part of Maryland in 1976, where they found that deep wells had abnormally high levels of lithium compared to other sources: 

Lithium levels varied by type of water source. The highest lithium levels were found in deep wells. Two thirds of the samples with concentrations greater than or equal to 10 [ng/mL] were found in deep wells, and 24% of the deep wells had concentrations greater than or equal to 10 [ng/mL]. City waters had no levels greater than 12 [ng/mL], and less than 2% had levels over 10 [ng/mL].

This all just makes the idea seem plausible. What we really want to know is, is there an appreciable amount of lithium in well water today? 

Lithium in Modern America

The answer is yes!

The first time we wrote about lithium, we said we didn’t know if there was lithium in the groundwater, we didn’t know if groundwater concentrations of lithium had increased over time, and the USGS wasn’t interested. Well, we are happy to report that all of that has changed.

On February 11, 2021, the USGS released a report titled Lithium in U.S. Groundwater. The first conclusion they share is that “45% of public-supply wells and about 37% of U.S. domestic supply wells have concentrations of lithium that could present a potential human-health risk.” It doesn’t get any better from there. The header for the report looks like this:

The report is backed by a paper released on May 1, 2021. The raw data is available here (see the two urls near the bottom).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this paper, but mostly we want to know if there are serious levels of lithium in well water, and if most Americans are getting lithium in their drinking water. The answer in both cases seems to be a pretty clear “yes”:

Concentrations nationwide ranged from <1 to 396 [ng/mL] (median of 8.1 [ng/mL]) for public supply wells and <1 to 1700 [ng/mL] (median of 6 [ng/mL]) for domestic supply wells. For context, lithium concentrations were compared to a Health Based Screening Level (HBSL, 10 [ng/mL]) and a drinking-water only threshold (60 [ng/mL]). These thresholds were exceeded in 45% and 9% of samples from public-supply wells and in 37% and 6% from domestic-supply wells, respectively

This dataset includes a few samples from as far back as 1991, but almost all the samples were collected after 2000, and the biggest chunk are all from 2010 or later, so this is a pretty modern dataset. As we can see, the median concentration in well water is about 6-8 ng/mL, though this kind of obscures the fact that about 40% of all wells contain more than 10 ng/mL of lithium. Since we have the raw data, we can clarify and state that the median for all samples was 6.9 ng/mL. 

There are two comparisons we want to make. The first is to historical sources — are we being exposed to more lithium now than we were back in the day? Our best source for this is that 1964 paper, Public water supplies of the 100 largest cities in the United States by Durfor & Becker, which as you may remember is available on Google Books. They report a median level lithium concentration of only 2.0 ng/mL in the water supplies they analyzed. Based on this, the median level in US drinking water seems to have increased 3-4x since 1964. But this obscures the long tail of these data. Back in 1964, the maximum level they recorded was 170 ng/mL. In the modern data, the highest level is 1700 ng/mL, 10x higher.

We can also compare this to the Pima, who in the early 1970s were being exposed to about 100 ng/mL of lithium in their drinking water. This was very unusual back then but it is only somewhat unusual now — about 5% of the modern well water samples were in this range or higher, and about 1% contained more than 200 ng/mL. 

The median level of contamination has increased somewhat, but the maximum level of exposure has increased by an order of magnitude. There’s definitely more lithium in the groundwater today than there was in the 1960s and 1970s.

(We also noticed that in this paper, they mention: “As the stream flows toward its mouth, many sources contribute dissolved and suspended matter to the stream. … It is not surprising that the raw water obtained by Minneapolis, Minn., from the upper reaches of the Mississippi River contains about one-half the amount of dissolved solids as the raw water used by New Orleans, La., near the mouth of the river.”)

The other comparison we want to make is to other countries. The United States is pretty obese, much more obese than most other parts of the world. So the next step is to track down some data and see if other parts of the world have more or less lithium in their groundwater and/or drinking water than we do. 

We’ve found sources for a couple other countries, and we’re prepared to make some comparisons. These distributions are generally skewed, so the median is really the most appropriate metric here — but unfortunately some of these sources don’t report it and just report the mean instead. So to keep us comparing apples to apples as much as possible, remember — the US is about 36% obese, the median of lithium in the well water dataset is 6.9 ng/mL, and the mean is 19.7 ng/mL.

Greece is about 25% obese. In 2013, a team published this paper looking at lithium levels in 149 samples of drinking water from 34 prefectures of Greece. They found that the average level of lithium in the samples was 11.10 ng/mL, with a range from 0.1 to 121 ng/mL. (They also looked at 21 samples of different kinds of bottled waters and found mean lithium levels of 6.21 ng/mL) We can see that the average is lower than the average level in American well water, and that while there is quite a range of values, the range is also much more limited than the range in modern American water samples. We can also point out that the highest level for lithium in this sample (121 ng/mL) was on Samos Island, and in our first post on lithium, we found hints that people on Samos Island are about as obese as Americans.  

Denmark is about 20% obese. In 2017, a team published this paper looking at lithium levels in 158 drinking water samples from 151 public waterworks supplying approximately 42% of the Danish population. Of these, 139 measurements came from “a drinking water sampling campaign, executed from April to June 2013, spatially covering the entire country”. They found an average level of lithium in their sample of 11.6 ng/mL (SD 6.8 ng/mL), with a range from 0.6 ng/mL in Western Denmark to 30.7 ng/mL in Eastern Denmark. This average is pretty high, though lower than the average in our American samples, but it’s also notable that the range and maximum levels are quite low. Even though the Greek and Danish averages are very similar, the Danish maximum value is about one-fourth the Greek maximum value. They also happily report the median value, 10.5 ng/mL.

Austria is about 20% obese. In 2018, a team published this paper looking at 6460 lithium measurements in drinking water samples from all 99 Austrian districts. The average level of lithium was 11.3 ng/mL (SD 27 ng/mL), with a range from “not detected” to 1300 ng/mL.The authors mention that the measurements are extremely skewed — between this and that extreme maximum value, we expect the median is much lower than 11.3 ng/mL.

Italy is about 20% obese. In 2015, a team published this paper looking at lithium concentrations in drinking water at 145 sites in Italy. The average level of lithium in the samples was 5.28 ng/mL, with a range from 0.110 to 60.8 ng/mL. The mean and the maximum level are markedly lower than the levels found in American water. 

Japan is about 4% obese, making it the leanest industrialized nation in the world. In 2020, a team published this paper (h/t commenter Patrick Halstead) looking at lithium levels in 434 drinking water samples in the 274 municipalities of Kyushu Island, the third largest island of Japan’s five main islands, which is home to about 10% of the population. They found that the average level of lithium in the samples was 4.2 ng/mL (SD 9.3 ng/mL), with a range of 0 ng/mL to 130 ng/mL. 

This average is lower than any of the other modern averages we’ve seen. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that only three municipalities had more than 40 ng/mL lithium in their water. Combined with the high maximum value of 130 ng/mL, this suggests an extreme skew, and suggests that the median value is lower than 4.2 ng/mL, maybe much lower. Unfortunately the authors haven’t publicly shared the raw data, so it’s hard to know what the median value really is.

There’s also this paper from 2020 (h/t commenter AJ), by some of the same authors, which looked at lithium levels in tap water samples across the 26 municipalities of Miyazaki Prefecture. Miyazaki Prefecture is part of Kyushu Island, so this is sort of zooming in on the result above. The average lithium levels in the tap water samples was 2.8 ng/mL, with a range from 0.2 ng/mL to 12.3 ng/mL. This time they also report the median, which is 1.7 ng/mL. Note that this median level is lower even than the median in the US in 1964.  

There’s also this paper from 2009, again by some of the same authors, again looking at a prefecture on Kyushu Island. This time they looked at Oita Prefecture, which borders Miyazaki Prefecture to the south. The only difference is that the data are somewhat older, being collected in 2006. Unfortunately they don’t seem to report a mean or a median, but the range was from 0.7 ng/mL to 59 ng/mL, and the authors note that “the distribution of lithium levels was considerably skewed.” Reporting on this paper, the BBC said, “The researchers speculated that while these levels were low, there may be a cumulative protective effect on the brain from years of drinking this tap water.”

Taken together, these three papers strongly suggest that Japanese people have much lower levels of lithium in their drinking water than Americans, or indeed any industrialized population.

We’re comparing a lot of unlike things here. We’re comparing means to medians; comparing sources from different countries and across different years; comparing samples from “groundwater”, “well water”, and “drinking water” without knowing if these are meaningfully different. But even with these limitations, we see that drinking water in America clearly has higher levels of lithium than the drinking water in other countries. This is apparent in the average levels found in large samples, but even more impressive is the differences in extreme values. Most other countries see maximum values of not much more than 100 ng/mL, while the American maximum value recorded was 1700 ng/mL, and a full 1% of samples in our best dataset contained more than 200 ng/mL lithium.

There’s more lithium in American well water than there is in the drinking water of these countries. But there’s also more lithium in the drinking water of these countries than there was in America in the 1960s. Greece, Denmark, Austria, and Italy all have more lithium in their water today than America did in 1964. The median in the dataset for America in 1964 was 2.0 ng/mL — we only have averages for most of these countries, but they all are much higher than 2.0 ng/mL. Denmark, where they do report the median, has a median value of 10.5 ng/mL. The only exception is Japan, where the median (if we could calculate it) might be around 2.0 ng/mL. But modern-day Japan is leaner than America was in 1964 — they’re about as lean as America was in 1890! 

Lithium and Depth

We can also look at the data from this new USGS report to see if there’s anything to our suspicion that drilling deeper and deeper wells is leading to more background lithium exposure. 

The most basic thing to look for is just to see if deeper wells have higher concentrations of lithium, and the answer is a clear “yes”. The paper itself comments, “Lithium concentrations … are positively correlated with well depth”, and naturally we see the same thing in the raw data.

The relationship varies slightly depending on how you do the analysis, but however you slice it, well depth and lithium levels are correlated at about r = 0.2. Because the sample size is several thousand, these are always statistically significant. The relationship also remains significant, and about the same strength, when we control for other variables we expect to be relevant.

In the case of the arsenic contamination in Bangladesh, arsenic was concentrated at a depth of around 50 meters. Wells at around this depth tended to be heavily contaminated, but wells that were either shallower or deeper were generally fine. We thought there might be a similar “sweet spot” for lithium, but so far we haven’t found much evidence for this. Overall there is a weak but pretty constant relationship, where the deeper the well is, the more lithium it contains. There are some indications of a sweet spot for certain types of aquifers, but we’d need to do a more detailed analysis.

There’s even some evidence that wells have been getting deeper over the years. This dataset doesn’t contain information about when wells were drilled, but when they were tested is a proxy for when they were drilled — a well tested in 2003 couldn’t have been drilled in 2008. When we look at the data, we see that the depth of the wells being tested shows a consistent increase over time. In the 1990s they tested 39 wells, and the deepest was only 260 feet deep. In the 2000s, they tested 1,288 wells, and 313 were deeper than 260 feet. Only two of the wells tested in the 2000s were more than 2,000 feet deep. In the 2010s and on, 33 of the wells they tested were more than 2,000 feet deep.

This is supported by the publicly-available well data we pulled from Vermont and Massachusetts earlier, where we see moderate correlations (about r = 0.3) between the year a well was completed and the overall depth. This is omitting the wells in the MA dataset that were listed as being 4,132,004 and 10,112,002 feet deep — we think these may be typos.

What about the maps? 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this project, it’s that people love maps. This paper contains a few, and they’re pretty interesting. This one is the most relevant: 


One thing that you’ll notice is that the distribution of lithium in well water doesn’t match up all that well with the distribution of obesity. Colorado is the leanest state but has pretty high levels of lithium in its well water. Alabama is quite obese but levels of lithium in the well water there are relatively low. What gives? 

We think there are a couple of reasons not to be concerned about this. The first is that the sample is nowhere near representative. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the domestic-supply networks are thick around the coasts but thin in the interior of the country — except in Nebraska, where they are massively overrepresented for some reason. Only six wells were recorded in West Virginia and only three in Kentucky, which is too bad because those states seem pretty important. No effort seems to have been made to target population centers — this is a study by the USGS, so they are more interested in figuring out the features of major aquifers than of major cities. If a major city happens to be drawing from an especially contaminated source, they might have missed it.

The second is that there are big seasonal and weather effects, which they don’t adjust for. There’s almost no lithium in rain and snow — it’s essentially distilled water — so when it rains, lithium levels in groundwater drop as it becomes diluted with this influx of pure water. Similarly, there are seasonal effects — in part due to precipitation and snowmelt cycles — where lithium in the groundwater rises and falls over the course of the year.

But the third and most important thing is that all of these measurements are of well water, but many areas get their drinking water from surface sources rather than from wells. 

Let’s start with Colorado, since it’s the clearest example. As you can see from the map above, the average level of lithium in Colorado well water is higher than the national average. We have the raw data, so again we can tell you that the median level in Colorado wells is 17.8 ng/mL, the mean is 28.0 ng/mL, and the max is a rather high 217.0 ng/mL.

But this doesn’t matter, because almost none of the drinking water in Colorado comes from wells. Instead, most of the drinking water in Colorado comes from surface water, and most of that water comes directly from pure snowmelt.

Denver is the largest city in Colorado and also the capital. A company called Denver Water, which is Colorado’s oldest and largest water utility, serves the city of Denver and surrounding areas. They have this to say about where they get their water

Denver Water … relies on a system that collects rain and snow from across 4,000 square miles of mountains and foothills west of Denver. … On an average year, the utility captures 290,000 acre-feet of rain and snowmelt in its collection system. That’s roughly 94 billion gallons of water — or enough to fill up nearly 157 Empower Fields at Mile High. The water flows down rivers and streams, then through a network of tunnels, pipelines and canals to treatment facilities in the Front Range to be cleaned for delivery to homes and businesses. Because most of the water comes from mountain snowmelt in the spring, water is stored in mountain reservoirs until it is needed.

On another page, they say:

Denver Water is responsible for the collection, storage, quality control and distribution of drinking water to 1.5 million people, which is nearly one-fourth of all Coloradans. Almost all of its water comes from mountain snowmelt, and Denver is the first major user in line to use that water. Denver Water’s primary water sources are the South Platte River, Blue River, Williams Fork River and Fraser River watersheds, but it also uses water from the South Boulder Creek, Ralston Creek and Bear Creek watersheds.

Colorado Springs is the second-largest city in Colorado. Despite the name, they also get most of their drinking water from snowmelt. Per coloradosprings.gov

Colorado Springs is a community that lacks a natural water source. 80% of our community’s water comes via pipelines from the western slope, 200 miles away.

And per waterworld.com

Most of Colorado Springs’ current water comes from snowmelt, either on Pikes Peak or on the Western Slope. If snowfall is inadequate and precipitation falls as rain, the water is not easily captured in the high mountains where the Homestake pipeline begins. However, the Southern Delivery System (SDS) project would capture water as the flow emerged from the mountains as the Arkansas River and into Pueblo Reservoir.

Also enjoy this video from Colorado Springs Utilities called What it Takes to Drink Snowmelt.

Aurora is the third-largest city in Colorado (and right next to Denver). We bet you can guess where we’re going with this! From auroragov.org:

One of the benefits of living in a state that relies primarily on this surface water is that unlike groundwater, surface water is a renewable water source. 

Aurora receives 95 percent of our water from surface water sources, with the remaining five percent coming from deep aquifer groundwater wells. Replenished each year through snowmelt, Aurora’s water supply is transported from 180 miles away through a complex and extensive system.

As we mentioned above, precipitation has extremely low levels of lithium because it’s basically been distilled. In one study of rainwater in Montréal, they found a mean level of only 0.48 ng/mL. This means that if you are drinking rainwater or snowmelt, you are getting less lithium in your drinking water than any other group we’ve seen — less than in Italy, less than the Japanese, and less than Americans back in 1964. 

People in Colorado more or less are drinking nothing but snowmelt. It runs through rivers and reservoirs first, so it probably picks up some trace minerals and other contaminants from the slopes and riverbeds. But it doesn’t matter if the well water in Colorado is high in lithium — people aren’t drinking that, they’re drinking snowmelt.

Lithium aside, this is pretty interesting just from the perspective of Colorado being the leanest state. Snowmelt will be extremely low in pretty much every contaminant, so this seems to be additional evidence that obesity is caused by a contaminant that is carried in drinking water. We think you can still get exposure from other sources as well, probably your food — which is why Colorado is 20% obese, rather than 2% obese like premodern populations — but this seems like some evidence that drinking water alone makes some difference.

Other states also use surface water, but we’re pretty sure no one else is getting 95-100% of their drinking water directly from snowmelt. Utah is just on the other side of the ridge, but their Department of Environmental Quality says

Utah’s drinking water comes from either surface water (lakes, reservoirs, rivers) or ground water (wells or springs), altogether 1,850 sources. Utah’s larger cities generally use surface water and wells while its small towns depend on springs that serve the system all year long, supplemented by wells during the summer months.

Nearby Nebraska seems to get most of their drinking water from wells. According to one source, about 80 percent of the population consumes drinking water that is pumped from groundwater sources; according to another source, 85% of the population does. So unlike Colorado, Nebraska should be concerned about the levels of lithium in their groundwater — a median level of 17.6 ng/mL and a mean of 21.7 ng/mL — because they’re actually drinking it. And the rest of us should be concerned as well, because Nebraska is #3 in the nation for agricultural production.


25 thoughts on “A Chemical Hunger – Interlude H: Well Well Well

  1. NoopityBoop says:

    I was looking into the lithium contents of foods, and after digging through the citations I found myself looking at two papers:, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6443601/ and Anke, M., Schäfer, U., & Arnhold, W. (2003). LITHIUM. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 3589–3593. doi:10.1016/b0-12-227055-x/00710-0 . The thing is that they give wildly different answers for the lithium content of food, as in the table I’ve made below:

    mcg/g lithium

    cereals 4.4 .888
    fish 3.1
    mush .19
    vege 2.3
    meat .012 3.217
    dairy .5 3.626
    nuts 8.8
    bevrge .192
    sugar .363
    bread .612
    luxury 1.678
    spice 1.85
    fruit 2.846
    eggs 7.373

    4.4 vs .888 for cereals, .012 vs 3.217 for meat, .5 vs 3.626 for dairy? How does this happen? I haven’t been able to dig any deeper than this in the citations unfortunately. Can you figure out what’s going on here? Are lithium levels highly variable between regions?

    Also, when I was trying to look up the lithium contents of foods through other means, I found this website https://cookcal.info/en/foodstuffs/content/427. Many of the foods say 0 for lithium content, but I think that’s because the only source that this website cites is this weird Russian site which gives otherwise unbacked claims for the amount of lithium in a food: https://www-pharmacognosy-com-ua.translate.goog/index.php/vashe-zdorovoye-pitanije/ovoshchy/perets-sladkyj?_x_tr_sch=http&_x_tr_sl=ru&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en-US&_x_tr_pto=nui

    The minimum level of consensus I feel like I’m getting overall is that nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers), genus Asteraceae (lettuce, artichoke, chicory), oats, and sunflower tend to have higher levels of lithium uptake. Also, that plants grown in acidic soil tend to uptake lithium more (acidic soils making plants more prone to metals uptake in general), and those grown in alkaline soil tend to uptake it less (such as citrus and bananas).

    Since I’m here I may as well throw in the other conclusions I’ve sort of come to. It seems like avoiding PFAS exposure, as an individual, means:
    1. avoid water or grease proof paper (unless you know for a fact it’s paraffin wax or something)
    2. try to avoid plastic containers or paper/cardboard containers with plastic lining in them for your food, since manufacturers like to fluorinate their plastics for better impermeability, leading to spontaneous conversion of the polyethylene to PFAS
    3. reverse osmosis your water to filter the PFAS out (there are alternatives, but if you’re going to filter your water, may as well do RO)
    4. there’s nothing really proven to filter it out of the air, the only method I see confirmed is heating the air to around 1800 degrees Farenheit, and maybe also activated charcoal

    For antibiotics, it’s more straightforward: only eat labeled antibiotic-free meat, dairy, and eggs. I tried to find out if antibiotics contaminate crops, but it was hard to find data on this. I also considered manure as a vector, but apparently since manure is costly to transport, it mostly gets used on crops grown to feed livestock (corn, soybeans, and oats). The most likely food to be manured that a consumer will eat directly seems to be peanuts? By the way, it turns out the US banned antibiotics for growth enhancement in 2017, and antibiotics use has dropped 33% since then. There’s still a large amount being prescribed for veterinary use though.

    Also, I imagine RO is probably the best way to get lithium out of your drinking water.


    1. We saw these sources too and were similarly confused. The short answer is yes, we expect lithium levels will vary a lot. For one, if the same crop is grown in water with different levels of lithium, it will end up containing different levels of lithium. And second, there might be huge differences between varieties of the “same” plant.


      1. NoopityBoop says:

        I’m starting to think that maybe the only way to really measure it on an individual level would be to just buy a lithium assay kit or a spectroscope and measure it yourself? There’s apparently a handheld laser spectroscope used for mining that can measure lithium levels in soils, which might be good for this purpose? https://www.sciaps.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/SciAps-ApNote_Measurements-of-Lithium-in-Soils_Jan2017.pdf I’m considering maybe emailing these people and asking them for guidance (and price). Even if it’s really expensive, I’m sure someone in the community would be willing pay to do these sorts of tests (or maybe a crowdfund could do it); it’s pretty bad when our latest data on lithium levels in food is nearly three decades old.


    2. NoopityBoop says:

      For those looking at the parent comment for diet advice (I’m trying to build a “decontaminated diet” myself), I forgot to mention a fifth part to avoiding PFAS, which is to not use nonstick cookware (e.g. Teflon), and to not use plastic cutlery and dishes, or plastic-lined cutlery and dishes, which are all going to be subject to the fluorination problems I listed earlier. Pretty much any paper bowl, cup, or plate is going to have a plastic lining, and we simply can’t tell which of these are or aren’t fluorinated. Ironically, this may mean that styrofoam is preferable when it comes to disposable cups and plates when it comes to avoiding PFAS exposure (although perhaps you might want to avoid it for other reasons).

      I wanted to ask you directly, SlimeMoldTimeMold, do you think the procedures I’ve outlined above seem reasonable when trying to build a “decontaminated” diet?


      1. Unfortunately we really don’t know, mostly because no one has done the necessary testing (or if they have, it’s not publicly available). So we’re hesitant to give advice based on such limited information. But we hope to do some of this research ourselves and will share what we find as soon as we have anything!


      2. NoopityBoop says:

        As a correction, all forms of plastic except PET can be fluorinated, and this includes Styrofoam (i.e. polystyrene). PET can technically be fluorinated, but the only mentions I’ve seen of doing so have been in recent studies which seem to indicate mixed results in whether this improves its attributes, or require high pressure and temperature, whereas with other plastics fluorination can be done in an unpressurized, room-temperature chamber. All the major packaging manufacturer websites I could find, except for one, said that PET fluorination was impossible, and the exception was mentioned in kind of an off-handed way. So for now, I would consider PET plastics to be relatively PFAS-free.

        This website seems to have sent many products to testing labs to test for fluorination as an indicator of PFAS contamination: https://www.mamavation.com/?s=pfas Seems to be helpful, if a bit commercial.


    3. Yev says:

      Slight correction: It’s a Ukrainian website, not a Russian one. The domain ends in `.com.ua` and the about page says the author is a professor at Kyiv Medical University.


      1. John says:

        I’m curious about the potential role of air pollution as a source of contaminants, which hasn’t really been mentioned. It’s probably relatively easy to measure people’s relative exposure, since air is highly geographically correlated. Air pollution probably also correlates with many professions, like trucking, mining, working in a PFAS factory, etc.

        (Air pollution probably correlates with altitude. And while there’s been air pollution for a lot longer than obesity, there are probably newer pollutants that haven’t.)

        I started thinking about this from reading this blog, and because since moving from the city to the suburbs about a year ago, my weight has gone down almost 15%, with no changes in diet or exercise (and my town has the same water source as the city I moved from). Interestingly, both my cats also lost 15% of their weight since the move, with even less change to their diet an exercise.


    4. Charlie says:

      You could consider testing your hair for lithium pre and post intervention to determine if the changes you are making have an impact. Im not sure how much the testing is but Id hope it doesnt take a prescription.


  2. Nick says:

    I live in a rural area and get my water from our own well, which is around 50 feet deep. Based on that map I would think it would be low in lithium, but I’m wondering if anyone knows of a place that our water could be tested for lithium content for a reasonable price? Our state lab does water testing but lithium is not one of their tests.


    1. Michael says:

      It’s difficult to say without knowing where you’re at, but when I got my well tested it was through a local university. They didn’t have any official program for it or anything, I just contacted a professor I knew (and I mean knew in the loosest sense, I had spoken to him at most twice prior) in their geology department and he helped me out.

      I had the somewhat unusual advantage of having a university with a highly-rated geology department that was interested in water quality in my rural area though, so your results with this strategy may vary.


    2. Check in with nearby universities/colleges. When I got my well tested I just reached out to a professor in the geology department at a nearby school and he set me up. There was no official program for it or anything, but they tested mine for near-free.

      I had the luck of having a nationally-rated geology department in a university near my rural area though and was part of a not insignificant family (not famous, but village-famous if you know what I mean), so your results may vary.


  3. LT says:

    Are there studies on whether people lose weight after moving to Colorado? Anecdotally, a number of friends, all non-obese, have moved to Colorado in the past few years. So (at least among people I know) there’s a bit of a self-selection effect where non-obese people moving to Colorado (ever-so-slightly) lowers Colorado’s obesity rate and raises the obesity rate of the place they move away from.


  4. One interesting comparison to make might be to compare NYC – which derives 100% of its water from surface sources that it has taken care to keep relatively free of agriculture – with neighboring areas in NY, NJ and CT. They likely share much of the same food supply, but will have different water sources. The sentiment in general is that NYC is less obese because people walk a lot more than the car-centric communities that surround it, but the water angle may be more important if your research bears out.


  5. Harmless Frog says:

    It might be informative to look at rates of hypothyroidism by region, since lithium’s mechanism of action for causing obesity appears to be just that. It’s pretty strong effect, at least for medicinal lithium[1]. I could totally believe that the high doses the Pima got could have caused their obesity. What’s the prevalence of hypothyroidism among them?

    [1] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(11)61516-X/fulltext


    1. Good question. Sievers & Cannon don’t mention hypothyroidism, but they do mention that the Pima have exceptionally high rates of cholesterol gallstones, which can be a sign of hypothyroidism, and high rates of cirrhosis of the liver, which some sources suggest may be related.


  6. > The report is backed by a paper released on May 1, 2021. The raw data is available here (see the two urls near the bottom).

    Raw data URL suffering from link rot 😦 Have another link? Google is letting me down.


  7. ls says:

    Enough talk! Let’s begin experimenting. We can get some fat people to volunteer to drink only distilled water, and see if they start losing weight.


  8. Zen says:

    If Lithium is the problem, we should also look at when Low-sodium diets began to be mainstream. At first glance, I don’t see an inconsistency. And they are chemically very similar.

    Likewise, if we are looking at things that are psychoactive, then the Autism/ADHD epidemic should be addressed as well.

    Finally, I am suspicious of how preservatives and emulsifiers change gut bacteria. Our microbiota of gut bacteria has degenerated significantly.

    Just some things to consider. Keep up the fantastic work!


  9. Regarding Japanese water supplies. Japan is a very rainy country with numerous fairly high volume but short rivers. The overwhelming majority of Japanese water supplies (as in 99% +) are streams and rivers and with the general shortness of the paths to the sea you don’t see a lot of water that has been used and treated upstream in the water supplies downstream. There are some issues with agricultural runoff showing up in the drinking water (nitrates, phosphates etc.) but, apart from possibly the occasional household, no wells and certainly no deep wells.

    Also almost all major Japanese cities are on the coast or near by so sewerage discharges from major population centers go directly into the sea in almost every case. The only cities in the top 20 or so that don’t have a beach of harbor within 20km or so of the center are Kyoto and Saitama and in fact only those two and Sapporo are not on the coast. You have to get down to cities with a population of about 400,000 or so to find one that is neither Kyoto nor a part of greater Tokyo and not near the sea (Gifu with 412k inhabitants according to wikipedia)

    If there’s something to the theory that water pollution is a cause of obesity then Japan would certainly stand out as a country with relatively pure water.

    I believe the same applies to both Korea and Taiwan and much of South East Asia


  10. Brogurt says:

    From my understanding, parts of Australia get significant portions of their drinking water from rainwater stored in reservoirs- they don’t look to be a particularly lean country, does this dampen your belief in the lithium hypothesis


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