Aluminum, atomic number 13 in the Periodic Table of Elements, is a shiny silvery metal and the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. Aluminum’s chemical properties make it ideal for crafting into thousands of objects used on a daily basis. A highly-reactive element that readily binds with many others to form useful products, aluminum also presents a danger to living creatures, as it has no role in living systems.
In nature, all aluminum atoms are tightly bound with other elements in the form of compounds. Bauxite is the most abundant aluminum ore (Al2O3·3H2O). The major sources of bauxite are Jamaica, Brazil, and Australia.
Aluminum is lightweight and can be manufactured into many useful products. Among its many useful benefits, aluminum can be recycled cost effectively, increases the fuel efficiency of cars and airplanes, is a good conductor of electricity and does not corrode.
Until the process of smelting aluminum was discovered in the late 1800s (1889), little bioavailable aluminum entered living beings. Life on Earth evolved in the absence of bioavailable aluminum. Aluminum has no biological function in any living organism and its bioaccumulation can result in dysfunction and toxicity. The lack of an evolutionary presence and role for aluminum in living systems has rendered all life defenseless to its mechanisms of toxicity. Aluminum is perceived by living things including humans as a foreign substance, or antigen, due to its lack of recognition in the biological environment, and as a toxin.
Aluminum was once considered so rare and exotic; it was used to cap the Washington Monument, signifying its importance. Since the advent of commercial smelting, aluminum has become the second most used metal after steel. Aluminum is a key component in construction, transportation, packaging, food, household products, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, baby formulas, vaccines, and cosmetics and skin care products.
Aluminum was not discovered until the late 1800s, primarily due to the extremely high temperatures required to separate the metal from its compounds. The Bayer process for smelting uses caustic soda to form a slurry which is heated at high temperatures. Unwanted compounds settle out of the slurry creating a toxic byproduct called red mud which contains residual aluminum as well as toxic heavy metals and radioactive elements.
Red mud lakes are highly toxic and must be kept in reservoirs. In western Hungary, a dam containing a red mud lake reservoir broke in 2010 and flooded a town, resulting in a disaster that caused deaths, injuries, and long-term soil contamination. Toxic red mud has no known safe uses and cannot be recycled. Aluminum dust is present in the air and can accumulate in the lungs. The challenges of managing aluminum waste by-products raises many questions about the health and environmental consequences of aluminum refining, including the effects on fish, wildlife, water, and soil contamination.
While aluminum metal is not inherently dangerous some individuals may be sensitive to its presence, for example, on the skin. Aluminum becomes dangerous when it is a source of biologically-reactive aluminum and this can be on the surfaces of the body, such as the skin, or upon entry into the body where it will be transported around the body, primarily in the blood. All forms of aluminum have the potential to be toxic. Those forms which are often most dangerous are those which are able to dissolve quite quickly to release biologically reactive forms of the metal.
Aluminum is a concern for all age groups. Aluminum can cause immediate and long term health consequences. Aluminum is toxic to all living beings, and can substantially be avoided and eliminated from the body. A buyer beware approach should be taken when at the market and physician’s office, as official policies regarding aluminum have not kept pace with new independent scientific research on aluminum’s harmful effects on all living creatures.
All aluminum has the potential to exert toxicity and whether or not it is toxic depends less upon the amount and more upon the circumstances associated with where it is found. For example, 1g of aluminum applied as an antiperspirant to the underarm is unlikely to result in overt or immediate toxicity while the same amount in a neuron in the brain would kill the neuron within hours.
The accumulation of aluminum in the body is the result of the balance between our exposure and its excretion. Excretion occurs through feces, urine, sweat, hair, nails and exfoliation. Aluminum accumulates in the body with age and especially so in bone and in tissues with long-lived cells, such as the neurons of the brain.
Foods can contain aluminum as plants and animals bio accumulate from their environments. Aluminum is also often present as food additives. Aluminum is found in some baking powders which are used in baked goods such as breads, tortillas, pastries, cookies, pizza crust, and many packaged mixes. Powdered drink mixes such as hot cocoa, non-dairy creamers, and baby formulas can contain significant quantities of aluminum. Some table salts and many food dyes contain aluminum. Some prescription, over-the-counter and injected medicines, drugs and vaccines contain aluminum. Sometimes the aluminum is an active ingredient, and sometimes it is used as a dye or coating.
Aluminum is added to food as a drying agent, colorant, and as an emulsifier. Aluminum is an ingredient in many food and medicine dyes to make them more attractive and appealing. Aluminum is added to vaccines to stimulate an immune response or to require less antigen, a cost savings. Aluminum is an active ingredient in some antacids. Aluminum salts are effective anti-caking agents and might be added to anything where you are looking for a smooth and easily applied final product with no lumps, for example in sunscreens and sunblocks. Aluminum is the active ingredient in antiperspirants effectively preventing the functioning of sweat glands.
Aluminum has been scientifically linked to a vast number of diseases and conditions that have risen in prevalence in recent decades. The following list can be found in Aluminum and Medicine by Prof. Christopher Exley.
Aluminum in antiperspirants has been studied for its potential causal link to breast cancer. As rates of breast cancer have increased, so have the rates of cancers found in the quadrant of the breast closest to the armpit. Aluminum is found in many sunscreens but it is not often disclosed on the label. One application can contain approximately 200 mg of aluminum, and repeated applications as recommended by the WHO can total 5g in a single day. Aluminum could be a significant contributing factor to the development of skin cancer.
The skin is permeable, and aluminum applied topically can penetrate the skin layers and become deposited in other sites where it could cause harm. Aluminum can also act as a pro-oxidant by promoting the formation of reactive oxidant species (ROS) in the dermal layers. In the case of antiperspirants and breast cancer, aluminum concentrations are higher in nipple aspirate fluid in people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer than in those with healthy breasts. In the laboratory, aluminum has been demonstrated to transform healthy cells into cancer cells.
Aluminum injected as an adjuvant in vaccinations and allergy therapies can remain in the skin and muscle and it can also be transported throughout the body with recent evidence suggesting that adjuvant aluminum crosses the blood brain barrier with potential consequences for neurodegenerative diseases.
Neurological impairment has been documented from aluminum exposure, leading to cognitive impairment and loss of neuromuscular control. Aluminum may contribute to autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and a spectrum of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, Gulf War Syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders (ASD’s). Environmental, biological and genetic susceptibility factors are believed to play a role in the effect aluminum toxicity has on different segments of the population. Emotional and behavioral patterns are also altered in animals exposed to aluminum, with evidence of increased anxiety, reduced attention at a task, reduced exploratory behaviors, increased aggression, decreased muscular strength and endurance, and increased late stage long-term and spatial memory loss. Scientists note that animal model impacts of injected aluminum exposure reflect those seen in many of the human disorders that have become prevalent in the past three decades.
Air-borne particles of aluminum can access the brain via the nose. Inhaled recreational drugs including tobacco, heroin, cocaine and cannabis are all contaminated with aluminum and might all be considered as risk factors for exposure to aluminum.
There is good evidence that exposure to aluminum during pregnancy will expose the fetus and developing infant to aluminum. Links have been made between exposure during pregnancy and childhood allergies. Infants are especially vulnerable to aluminum exposure as their guts are less efficient in keeping aluminum out of the body; their kidneys are less efficient in removing aluminum from the blood and their brains are more susceptible as the blood brain barrier is not fully developed. Aluminum in infant formulas is a significant concern. The elderly are also more prone to aluminum exposure with good evidence that they absorb more aluminum from the gut and are less effective in excreting aluminum from the body.
New research demonstrates aluminum’s ability to alter mitochondrial DNA, which are the energy generating power plants of the cell. Research is currently underway which will evaluate whether aluminum can cause increasing levels of genetic damage with each generation of exposure.
Aluminum industry lobbyists and spokespeople have helped define aluminum as an inert and safe material, and dissuade health authorities and policy makers from engaging in further research. In the 1970’s, aluminum was considered a promising research avenue for the causation of many diseases, but funding suddenly diminished, slowing down the pace of scientific progress. Recently, scientists have taken a renewed interest in the topic of aluminum toxicity, and have made important new discoveries regarding aluminum’s links to many of the chronic conditions affecting human health in the 21st century.
Few metals possess the many beneficial qualities of aluminum, but the capacity to cause harm when it enters living beings is great. Care should be taken to eliminate aluminum from products applied to food production, medicines, and cosmetics. Safer more environmentally friendly mining and processing techniques should be developed and regulated. Products should be adequately safety tested before allowing human consumption.
Do aluminum-free alternatives exist? Vaccine researchers are looking for safe alternatives to aluminum adjuvants, but so far none have been identified. Aluminum free antacids, deodorants, baking powders, cosmetics, and sunscreens are available. Two consumer organizations, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database rate the safety and toxicity of skin care products and provide information about ingredients.
Aluminum Lake dyes, Alumina, Alum, Aldioxa, ticholorohydrex glycine are some of the compounds containing aluminum.
Avoiding products that contain aluminum requires time and effort to read labels and become familiar with where aluminum lurks in products, especially those used on a daily basis. Those who are considering becoming pregnant should take extra care to avoid aluminum containing antiperspirants, vaccines, antacids, cooking pans, and cosmetics. If possible, breast feed to avoid aluminum containing formulas, or research aluminum free formula alternatives. Check the ingredients for dyes and other hidden sources of aluminum. Commercial baked goods and aluminum containing bakery mixes should be avoided.
Recent studies at Keele University in England have shown that silicic acid binds to aluminum and removes it from the body. Silica rich mineral waters have been shown to reduce the aluminum body burden, and in some instances, resulted in improvements in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients. A silicon-rich mineral water is defined as one with at least 30 mg/L or ppm ‘silica’.
There are tests for aluminum, but their reliability has been questioned by experts. Hair analysis can only determine if aluminum in the body is being excreted, and results can be inaccurate due to contamination from hair care products containing aluminum additives and water or other environmental contamination. Best estimates of the human body burden of aluminum can be obtained using urinary excretion of aluminum over 24h periods. These are currently the only reliable estimates of whether an individual is overloaded with aluminum.