Lithium in Drinking Water Linked to Autism Risk

Recent research, spearheaded by a UCLA Health investigator, reveals that expectant mothers whose homes had higher concentrations of lithium in their tap water were at a slightly elevated risk of their children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, suggests that naturally occurring lithium in drinking water could be a potential environmental hazard linked to autism. It is reportedly the first of its kind to make this association.

Beate Ritz, MD, PhD, who is a professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and holds a position in epidemiology and environmental health at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, emphasized in a statement that “Any drinking water contaminants that may affect the developing human brain deserve intense scrutiny.” 

Lithium’s mood-stabilizing properties have made specific lithium compounds a standard treatment option for depression and bipolar disorders. Despite this, there has been considerable discussion regarding the safety of taking lithium during pregnancy, given emerging evidence linking its usage to an increased risk of cardiac anomalies or defects in newborns and a higher risk of miscarriage.

Ritz’s interest was piqued by specific experimental research findings that suggested lithium, one of several naturally occurring metals commonly present in water, may influence a vital molecular pathway that plays a role in both neurodevelopment and autism.

Study co-author Zeyan Liew, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Yale University School of Public Health, highlighted the significance of the study by noting that although previous research using high-quality medical registry data in Denmark revealed that chronic and low-dose lithium consumption from drinking water can impact the onset of adult neuropsychiatric disorders, no study had yet examined the impact of drinking water with lithium on neurodevelopment in pregnant women’s offspring.

The findings of this study are useful to integrative practitioners who may need to consider the potential risks associated with drinking water containing lithium during pregnancy when evaluating a patient’s overall health and counseling them on prenatal care.

Ritz, Liew, and researchers from Denmark analyzed lithium levels in 151 public waterworks that supplied water to approximately half of the country’s population. 

Using a nationwide database of patients with psychiatric disorders, the researchers identified children born between 1997 and 2013 and compared 12,799 children diagnosed with autism to 63,681 children with no autism diagnosis. 

The research team noted a link between increasing lithium levels and the likelihood of an autism diagnosis. 

Upon further analysis of the data, the researchers discovered a close connection between higher levels of lithium and an elevated risk of autism diagnosis, even when considering subtypes of the disorder. Additionally, the researchers observed that the relationship between lithium levels and autism risk was slightly more pronounced among urban people than in smaller towns and rural regions.


Bellinger DC. Lithium in Drinking Water—A Novel Environmental Risk Factor for Autism Spectrum Disorder? JAMA Pediatr. Published online April 03, 2023. DOI:  10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.0330 

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