Aluminium-the silent visitor

ImageNew research shows that some types of baby formula contain 100 times more aluminium than breast milk. Experts like Dr Chris Exley, Professor of Bioinorganic Chemistry at Keele University are now calling on the government to take action. 

Their study, published in the journal BMC Pediatrics, examined 30 types of formula sold in the UK, including infant first milks and toddler milks. ‘It is widely recognized that aluminium is a neurotoxin and that it can cause cognitive deficiency’ says Exley.

Study leader Professor Chris Exley, who raised the alarm three years ago with a similar study, said some formulas have aluminium levels 100 times higher than the same amount of breast milk. He said ‘We believe this is too much aluminium to be subjecting a human to at their most vulnerable stage of life.

‘What we don’t know is whether aluminium is accumulating in the bodies of formula-fed babies. If it is, aluminium has no biological function at all, you have no requirement for it. ‘Simply the fact we don’t have experiments showing that it’s either safe or not safe in humans certainly doesn’t mean it’s not an issue.’

Dr Exley’s concern about aluminium is the lack of research into safe levels at which it can be tolerated in the body. ‘Aluminium has no function in the human body and there are hundreds of publications which demonstrate that it is not safe. Yet nobody is doing any research in this area-least of all the people who should be protecting us like the WHO and FSA’ says Dr Exley.

Most people remember that aluminium was linked to early onset Alzheimer’s many years ago. In fact, the earliest link between Alzheimers disease and aluminium was published in 1921 by J Spofforth in the Lancet where it was suggested that aluminium poisoning caused memory disorder in humans.   Then in 1976 D R Crapper et al showed aluminium was associated with plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

More recently Rondeau et al demonstrated that high daily intake of aluminium correlated with an increased risk of dementia or cognitive decline in a 15 year follow up French cohort study known as PAQUID.

There is no doubt that aluminium is toxic. During the 1960/70s kidney dialysis patients used to have their blood flushed out with ordinary tap water. ‘In areas where there was a high level of aluminium in the water these patients got extremely ill and some of them died from the neurotoxic effects’ says Dr Exley.

Aluminium is the most common metal on our planet forming 8% of the Earth’s crust so needless to say it is naturally absorbed by many plants and foodstuffs we grow to eat. However it is also added in almost everything else we come into contact with. All of us consume it daily-often without realizing it.

For example, Aluminium sulphate is added to our water to improve its clarity. All foods which need raising agents or additives such as cakes and biscuits contain aluminium. Children’s sweets contain aluminium-enhanced food colouring, it is in beverages such as tea, cocoa and malt drinks, in some wines and fizzy drinks and is also in most processed foods.

It is in a variety of cosmetics including sunscreens and antiperspirants. It is used as a buffering agent in aspirin and in a wide range of antacids. It is even used in vaccines. And now we know it is in extremely high levels in certain types of infant formula.

You might wonder why we have not adapted to deal with aluminium in the body. But Exley points out it was only 100 years ago we learned how to make aluminium metal from the stuff locked up in the Earth’s crust.  ‘This heralded the advent of the Aluminium Age and 100 years of humans being exposed to a burgeoning concentration of biologically available aluminium. So all the aluminium in our body is a silent visitor’ he says.

Toxic effects of aluminium are dependent upon the amount we consume, tissue distribution and excretion rate. When the amount of aluminium consumed exceeds the body’s capacity to excrete it, the excess is then deposited in various tissues including nerves, brain, bone, liver, heart, spleen and muscle.

We are also exposed to aluminium by other routes such as our skin, nose and lungs which may be just as important as our exposure via the gut.  Eighty per cent of vaccines contain aluminium which acts as an adjuvant to boost the immune response. ‘If you think most infants get around 14 vaccinations before the age of 13 then we believe the aluminium load is unacceptably high’ says Exley.

Dr Exley has been working in the field of aluminium for more than 25 years. Not for nothing has he been affectionately dubbed Mr Aluminium-a nod to his remarkable expertise in a field which does not traditionally attract plaudits or huge research funds.

‘Everyone has some aluminium in their bodies but infants below the age of six months are more susceptible because their gut, kidneys and blood brain barrier are immature so they are especially prone to absorbing it and not so good at getting rid of it’ he says.   The FSA does not provide a ‘safe’ limit for aluminium in formula milk but Dr Exley wants manufacturers to lower the level or print it on the label so that parents can make an informed choice.

Diane Benford, Head of the Chemical Risk Assessment Unit at the Food Standards Agency, is confident that babies are not at risk. She does concede however, that children may be consuming too much aluminium, simply because they eat more than adults.

‘Some small groups of the UK population may now be consuming more than the safety guideline amount of aluminium. This may particularly affect children who consume food with higher amounts of aluminium such as bread and bakery products, cocoa and cocoa products, and some leafy vegetables.

There is a Tolerable Weekly Intake which was recently set by the European Food Safety Authority’s Scientific Panel on Food Additives. ‘The TWI is not an estimate of people’s intake but an expert opinion of an amounts that EFSA considers can be safely consumed every day over a whole lifetime’ explains Benford.

So how do consumers know how much is safe? ‘There is no way an individual can actually check because aluminium is everywhere and can be found in so many different foods. In 2008 EFSA estimated that some people would exceed the TWI. However the available data do not show an increase in intake and because the TWI was increased by the WHO to 2mg per 1kg fewer people will now exceed it’ says Benford.

Yet Exley takes issue with their science. ‘To put out these ‘safe tolerable levels’ suggests we know something we do not. More scientific research is desperately needed’ he says.   ‘Our research demonstrating the vulnerability of infants to early exposure to aluminium serves to highlight an urgent need to reduce the aluminium content of infant formulas and no longer use aluminium as an adjuvant in vaccines agains childhood diseases’ he says.

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