Symptoms of toxicity: Acute aluminum poisoning has been associated with constipation, colicky pain, anorexia, nausea and gastrointestinal irritation, skin problems, and lack of energy. Slower and longer-term increases in body aluminum may create muscle twitching, numbness, paralysis, and fatty degeneration of the liver and kidney.
Aluminum toxicity has been fairly recently described. It is worse with reduced renal function. Aluminum may reduce the absorption of selenium and phosphorus from the gastrointestinal tract. The loss of bone matrix from aluminum toxicity can lead to osteomalacia, a softening of the bone. Skin rashes have occurred with local irritation from aluminum antiperspirants.
Aluminum toxicity has been implicated in the brain aging disorders. Alzheimer's disease and parkinsonism have both become more prevalent as the incidence of aluminum toxicity has increased. Areas with high amounts of aluminum in the drinking water are showing an increase in the incidence of Alzheimer's disease (alum and aluminum sulfate are used to treat water in many cities). Nearly 100,000 people of the 1.5-2 million people with Alzheimer's are dying each year. Although increased aluminum has been measured in the brain and other body tissues in Alzheimer's diseases, other factors may be contributing as well. There seems to be a weakening of the blood-brain barrier in Alzheimer's disease, and this may allow a variety of brain toxins to reach the central nervous system. What is causing this breakdown of the barrier between the brain and the rest of the body is not yet clear. It is also important to examine aluminum toxicity in children with hyperactivity and learning disorders, as it has been implicated in these problems.
Amounts leading to toxicity: It is not known exactly what levels of aluminum or what other factors cause it to become a problem. With blood and hair analysis, normal ranges of aluminum may vary from lab to lab. Hair analysis is probably one of the better ways to measure body aluminum. The mineral analysis laboratory that I use, Doctor's Data in Chicago, suggests that a reading under 15-20 ppm in hair is considered normal, but less than that, say under 10-15 ppm, is probably ideal.
Who is susceptible? Everyone has contact with aluminum; it is present in most diets. However, why and how aluminum becomes a problem, if it truly does, we do not yet know. It appears that the elderly may have more of a problem with aluminum, if indeed it is a cause or part of the cause of Alzheimer's disease and other brain syndromes. Those who eat refined foods, refined flours, baked goods, processed cheeses, and common table salt are more likely to have higher aluminum levels in their bodies. Those who use antacids or antiperspirants that contain aluminum, or who cook with aluminum foil or kitchenware, will also have more contact with this potentially toxic mineral.
Treatment of toxicity: Decreasing contact with and use of aluminum-containing substances will reduce intake and allow more aluminum to leave the body. Oral chelating agents will also help clear aluminum more rapidly. Tetracycline is actually a mild chelator for aluminum. Calcium disodium edetate (EDTA) binds and clears aluminum from the body; this substance is fairly nontoxic and is used as the agent for "chelation therapy," an intravenous treatment used to pull metals such as lead from the body, and more recently used in the treatment of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases. Deferoxamine, an iron chelator, also binds aluminum. In a study with Alzheimer's patients, nearly 40 percent of the patients showed an improvement in symptoms with deferoxamine treatment. There is some evidence that intravenous chelation with EDTA helps Alzheimer's patients. More research is needed to evaluate aluminum's involvement with this disease.