Aluminum is one of the most common heavy metals found in drinking water. In this glossary, you’ll find a definition of aluminum, information on how it gets into water and its potential health effects, and tips to protect your family from this contaminant.
Table of Contents
- ❔ What is Aluminum?
- 🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Aluminum in Water?
- 📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Aluminum in Drinking Water?
- 🔎 How Can I Tell if Aluminum is in My Drinking Water?
- 👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Aluminum in Drinking Water?
- ⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Aluminum?
- 📝 Where Can I Get More Information?
❔ What is Aluminum?
💡 Aluminum is a metal that’s found abundantly in the earth’s crust. This lightweight, silvery-white metal is used in a variety of products, including aeroplane parts, cans, kitchen utensils, foils, and satellite dishes.
There are numerous aluminum forms that exist today. In the environment, aluminum is naturally occurring as silicates, hydroxides, and aluminum oxide, and may be combined with other elements, like fluoride and sodium.
|In Water As||Al3+; Al(OH)3|
|Sources||Leaching in rocks & soil|
Water treatment residual
|Secondary Maximum |
Contaminant Levels (SMCLs)
|US EPA: 0.05 - 0.2 mg/L|
WHO Guideline: 0.1 - 0.2 mg/L
Health Canada: 0.1 to 0.2 mg/L
EWG: 0.6 mg/L
|Potential Health Risks||Potential Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s|
High Risk to Dialysis Patients
Toxicity in Large Quantities
Portable Cation Exchange
🩺 What are the Potential Health Effects of Aluminum in Water?
Unlike other metals, like iron and zinc, aluminum is non-essential to humans and is considered toxic. There is no recommended daily aluminum intake required by the human body.
Some of the potential health effects of consuming aluminum ions in drinking water are:
Nausea, Vomiting, and Diarrhea
The WHO reports that in 1988, about 20,000 individuals in the UK drank elevated aluminum sulphate levels for five days after their water supply was accidentally contaminated. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea were the three most common gastrointestinal symptoms experienced by the individuals.
Skin and Mouth Ulcers
In the same incident reported by the WHO, some individuals experienced skin ulcers, mouth ulcers, and skin rashes after drinking higher concentrations of aluminum. These symptoms were mostly temporary and mild.
Potential Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s
The same WHO report evaluated 20 studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s to determine the potential connection between increased aluminum uptake and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Half of these studies found a positive relationship between the two, but more updated research is needed to confirm the validity this data.
High Risk to Dialysis Patients
Patients who need renal dialysis need to minimize their total aluminum levels as much as possible as dialysis is ineffective at removing this metal due to protein binding, leaving patients at a higher risk of aluminum toxicity.
Toxicity in Large Quantities
While metallic aluminum is considered safe, high aluminum concentrations, particularly aluminum chloride and aluminum sulphate, can have a toxic effect on humans. Signs of aluminum toxicity include confusion, seizures, muscle weakness, speech problems, slow growth (in children), and bone pain.
🚰 How Does Aluminum Get Into Drinking Water?
Aluminum is naturally present in rocks and soils. Aluminum dust is also released into the environment, where it settles in surface water sources.
The most common way that aluminum gets into drinking water is through surface runoff and soil seepage. Water flows over rocks or through soil with high concentrations of aluminum, and traces of the metal dissolve into the water. Acid rain resulting from industrial activity is another common cause of high aluminum concentrations in surface water.
Aluminum also travels into our water supplies from consumer products (such as food additives and cosmetics), cookware, and drinks containers that contain this metal. Commonly, aluminum in water can be found as sodium aluminate, from precipitation softening or clarification. It may also be found as aluminum hydroxide.
Finally, aluminum is used by some public drinking water treatment facilities. Aluminum salts are added to water to remove organic matter, turbidity, and microorganisms.
📉 Do Water Treatment Facilities Monitor Levels of Aluminum in Drinking Water?
Yes, aluminum is monitored by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The World Health Organization (WHO) also has a guideline for aluminum, and Health Canada has its own guidance value for this metal.
Here’s the important data:
- The EPA: A Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL) of 0.05 to 0.2 mg/L
- WHO Guideline: 0.1 to 0.2 mg/L
- Health Canada: Operational Guidance Value (OG) of 0.1 to 0.2 mg/L
📌 It’s important to know the EPA’s SMCL for aluminum is non-enforceable. This means that water systems aren’t legally required to comply with this SMCL and keep their waters’ total aluminum concentration below 0.2 mg/L, although some states may choose to adopt the EPA’s SMCLs as enforceable rules.
🔎 How Can I Tell if Aluminum is in My Drinking Water?
There are two signs that your water contains aluminum:
- Your water has a gray tinge or gray particles
- Your water has a bitter or metallic taste
If your water doesn’t look or taste different, that doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to be aluminum-free. You’ll probably only notice changes to your water quality if there’s a substantial amount of aluminum present. Testing your water is the only accurate way to find out if it contains aluminum, and how much.
👩🏽⚕️ How Can I Protect My Family from Aluminum in Drinking Water?
The best way to protect your family from aluminum in water is to install a water treatment system in your home. Reverse osmosis filters are the best water treatment systems to remove aluminum compounds from your water with up to 98% effectiveness.
Reverse osmosis systems are commonly available as under-sink or countertop units. These systems contain a semi-permeable membrane, which blocks all impurities and organic matter from passing through the filter. Only pure water particles can leave the system.
Reverse osmosis systems cost between $250 and $600, depending on the size, quality, and complexity of the system.
⚠️ How Else Can I Be Exposed to Aluminum?
Aside from water consumption, there are other factors that may contribute to your daily aluminum intake:
- Some cosmetics and antiperspirants (deodorants) contain aluminum. Dermal (skin) exposure is our biggest non-dietary intake of aluminum.
- Industrial areas may have higher-than-average aluminum dust levels in the air, which we breathe in.
- Antacids have about 104– 208 mg of aluminum per capsule, tablet, or single liquid dose.
- Aluminum bottles leach aluminum into the water when they’re heated.
- Many kitchen items and cookware are made from aluminum, which can leach into our foods and beverages.
To reduce your daily intake of aluminum as a consumer, start reading labels – especially for cosmetics and kitchenware. Check the ingredients in a product before you buy it. There are plenty of natural, aluminum-free options on today’s market, so there’s no reason to buy an aluminum bottle, aluminum food packaging, or anything else containing even low concentrations of aluminum.