The Value and Dangers of Lithium for Living Organisms

Lithium mining operation in Clayton Valley, Nevada, by Doc Searls, at Wikimedia
Lithium mining operation in Clayton Valley, Nevada, by Doc Searls, at Wikimedia

We have heard about lithium batteries, but do you know what role lithium plays inside our own bodies? Do you know that it is much more than the stuff inside batteries or in the prescription medicine?

Updated 1 Sept 2014

Comment on Lithium Battery Industry Keeps Going, And Going …” on Morning Edition 9 May 2011, where I criticize those who think of lithium as an inert substance and suggest that it is a primitive but very powerful ion carrier in natural systems. Presence in large quantities in the natural habitat might pose ecological dangers as well as endanger humans who mine it.


NPR host Steve Inskeep discusses lithium mining with Seth Fletcher (author, Bottled Lightening: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy) who tells us that most of it comes from South America in a high-altitude desert in the Andes where Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina meet, in dried up salt lakes where it has concentrated, to some degree, over time.  Mining companies extract it from these dried lakes and concentrate it to about 6%.  Fletcher suggests that there will be an oversupply for about ten years. He says that there are no toxic chemicals in the lithium battery and that the mining is “an environmentally benign process”. Fletcher says that lithium batteries, for the time being, are only good enough for about 120 miles, and recharging takes too long to make it easy to use for longer trips in a car using these batteries. However, they are valuable as a backup method for holding power produced by other technologies, e.g. nuclear, solar and wind power.  He is hopeful that new technology may make them or some other process valuable for extending power supplies in the future.

Lithium Chemical
Lithium Chemical

My Comment Posted at NPR

Although the lithium inside of batteries may have little effect on all living organisms, because it’s charge is carefully guarded until it is needed for producing power, loose molecules of lithium in the environment may be a greater threat to life processes.  It is hard to call lithium mining a benign process since lithium is found in all living multicellular creatures.  It is valuable inside the body precisely because of its extremely low molecular weight, and ability to produce a charge readily because it so easily binds with water, and oxygen, in particular. We can consider it a very primitive oxygen carrier.  As such, it is the molecule that probably distributes oxygen in fetal tissue before a closed blood vascular network is fully developed.  It probably continues to perform that role in most of the body where capillary networks are not the predominant tissue, which is pretty much everywhere except liver, kidney and spleen. No doubt, its excess will cause an effect on the physiological processes of smaller organisms.

Environmental Hazard: Loose Lithium

Excess lithium in the environment, as would be the case where it is being mined and concentrated, and thus inhaled by air-breathing terrestrial creatures, may not affect the large-bodied animals. However, it would affect all plants and smaller terrestrial organisms, precisely because of its ability to gather water resources, denying that availability to these other organisms.

Desert in Fish Lake Valley, Nevada
Desert in Fish Lake Valley, Nevada
Kangaroo mouse from Fish Lake Valley, Nevada
Kangaroo mouse, Microdipodops pallidus, from Fish Lake Valley, Nevada

Even in these very dry, desert or desert-like environments where it is being extracted, water is a very scarce resource.  As such, all organisms living there are very strongly adapted with all sorts of physiological and anatomical characteristics, directed solely for the capture and holding of water inside them.  The huge amounts of lithium being concentrated there in these holding pools (and thus in the air) will most surely disrupt these natural processes in the smaller animals, plants, and microbes, and have a subtler effect on large organisms.  These disruptions could theoretically greatly affect the ecological balance of the arid ecosystem because it is generally dominated by the smaller-bodied organisms.

Loose connective tissue surrounding blood vessels, modified from image of occluded artery by Patho at Wikimedia. This image is not necessarily what happens with exposure to excess lithium.
Loose connective tissue surrounding blood vessels, modified from image of occluded artery by Patho at Wikimedia. This image is not necessarily what happens with exposure to excess lithium.

Specific effects on tissues in the body have not been studied well, but, we can conclude that lithium, because of its ubiquity in the tissues of the body, may theoretically be responsible for locally producing a small electric charge when necessary for rapid transport of water across cell membranes. Rapid transport of water is a change in the extracellular environment critical for the movement of nutrients from one part of a region of the body to another, especially in the sub-epithelial connective tissue system that makes up the hypodermal environment, and lining every epithelium in the body (e.g. lamina propria under the epithelium of the entire gastrointestinal system, endocrine system, blood and lymph vascular tissue, and most of the respiratory system, and at least some parts, if not all, of every organ in the body).  We know that it clearly affects the action of all neurons, and thus affects the entire nervous system (lithium is a drug for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression and possibly for cluster headaches). The effects of too much lithium in the environment can be subtle in humans but very drastic in other, smaller organisms. However, the list of side effects from taking the pharmaceutical lithium suggests widespread effects in the hypodermis.

Many people will ask at this point, doesn’t blood carry oxygen and affect water transport much more quickly, more strongly, everywhere in the body?  We know for a fact that capillaries are not found everywhere (note the poor presence in connective tissue in the image above), where they would be needed if they were the primary method for getting valuable nutrients and water to every cell.  In fact, vascularization level is readily seen by the naked eye when examining tissues of the body for color (cut up a chicken, raw or cooked, and examine the parts inside).  Red meat is clearly more vascularized than white meat. Liver, heart, kidney, spleen, lung (red to brown) are more vascularized than tendon, cartilage, ligament, bone, trachea, bronchi, breasts, spinal cord, brain, or the hypodermis where there is a lot of fat.

Blood is responsible for moving large amounts of water and nutrients to a region via bulk flow.  However, local mechanisms are necessary for moving these substances to individual cells.  These mechanisms require setting up a diffusion gradient, flooding an area with nutrients. A lot of water is a disadvantage for satisfying individual cellular needs. Local cellular activity can sort out the nutrients and carefully guide their transport when necessary.  Lithium can be one of several molecules used for setting up an electrical charge to allow diffusion gradients.

Because excess lithium may be dangerous to all life, both large forms and small forms, our mining operations may be hazardous to us all.

See other relevant postings at:
About ion transport, see the section “Basic Chemistry” in the post Cholesterol and Heart Disease,

Using MRT: Removing Toxins and Emotional Trauma


What is the Hypodermis?

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© Copyright 2014 by Martha L. Hyde and


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