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Keep the aluminum cookware, your brain won’t mind

...and keep using deodorants!

Aluminum is everywhere around us all of the time. It is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust. Yet, somehow, we have become fearful of it when it is used as cookware or as cans for beer or sodas. As far as anyone can currently determine, no life form uses it for anything at all. The reason is that aluminum is highly reactive and easily combines with other metals and oxygen to form hundreds of different minerals. Aluminum, in scientific terms, is not bioavailable to humans - usually. It all depends upon what chemical form the aluminum takes on. Usually, because aluminum is so tightly bound within minerals, animals have no chance to absorb it into their tissues.

This all changed a century ago due to the burning of certain types of coal for energy. Also, anyone over a certain age will remember the fears associated with acid rain. Although the consequences of having elevated levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the air have been known since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, public awareness peaked in the 1970s due to the appearance of "dead lakes," the destruction of entire forests and the pitting of marble statues in the UK and Europe. A century of acidic rains settled into the soil and changed the chemistry of minerals containing aluminum.

Plants do not use aluminum either but they are capable of absorbing it. Grains that are harvested today to make breads and cereals often contain a few parts per million of aluminum. However, the aluminum in grains unfortunately exists within a bioavailable form, i.e. a chemical form that we humans can absorb into our bodies and deposit in tissues. Animals who eat these plants concentrate the aluminum in their tissues too. Thus, meats obtained from cows may contain up to 1000 parts per million of aluminum. This is where things get a little dicey. Are we at risk from the aluminum in our diet? It depends entirely upon how much you consume.

Please recall that we humans do not use aluminum for anything at all. However, some people are vulnerable to its presence in the body. For example, a few years ago people undergoing dialysis began using water containing high levels of aluminum. Over time the level of aluminum in their brains and body began to increase and produced changes in their behavior that resembled dementia. The aluminum deposited within some brain cells and caused them to die. Fortunately, dialysis centers are aware of this risk and have taken steps to prevent the problem from occurring again. The experience taught us something about the effects of high doses of aluminum upon brain function and gave me a topic for my doctoral dissertation. Aluminum has also been found in the brains of patients who have died with Alzheimer's disease. Although this seems suspicious, aluminum salts will deposit in any soft tissue that has cell loss due to injury or degeneration. Thus, aluminum salts also deposit in the heart of people with coronary disease. Aluminum does not cause Alzheimer's disease.

What about deodorants? The aluminum salts used in these products do one thing - they irritate our sweat glands to the point that they swell and close the pores that allow perspiration to reach the surface of our skin. Essentially, aluminum prevents its own absorption by doing so. The real risk from deodorants comes from using sprays that produce a cloud of aluminum salts that can be inadvertently inhaled.

Thus, keep using your aluminum cookware - they pose no risk to health. The risk comes from the food we cook in those pots and pans. The best solution might be to stop consuming animals that live at the top of the food chain.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (oxford, 2010)

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