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General : Columns : The Elements Last Updated: 12, Nov 2008 - 10:18


Amazing Aluminium - Unlucky 13
By Bowser
21, Jul 2002 - 01:45

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Aluminium (or even aluminum if you are reading this Stateside) we associate with Coca Cola, Fanta and soft drinks, wrapping the turkey in at Christmas time - all good things. You can even recycle the cans afterwards.
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Aluminium cans can be recycled at a number of "Bring Centres" in Castlebar.
Al as the chemists fondly refer to the 13th element is found widely in nature in rocks and soils - third most abundant crustal element. It is important in helping soils to hold onto important plant nutrients such as phosphorus so it even helps in putting food on the table.

But Al also definitely has a darker side to him - unlucky 13 - because it is linked to dementia and pollution by acid rain. There is even a fascinating Castlebar link to do with our drinking water; of which more anon.

Anyone remember the aluminium saucepan scare in the 70s/80s? Aluminium plaque found in the autopsied brains of Alzheimer victims pointed the finger at aluminium — perhaps not the causative agent but definitely linked to the disease in some way. Boiling rhubarb in your saucepan, once a recommended method for bringing up a great shine on your pots, was now contraindicated because it was removing that dull but apparently protective oxidised layer. Thus aluminium could more easily dissolve into the cooking water and possibly becoming biologically active. So the message was "get to like that grubby dull look and don't cook acidic things in aluminium saucepans". So we dumped our aluminium saucepans (and switched to copper or stainless steel saucepans instead). Probably all a storm in a saucepan though and nothing to worry about though seeing as we still regularly drink highly acidic carbonated drinks from aluminium containers with no health warnings there!
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Lough Mask has supplied much of County Mayo with drinking water - with no added aluminium.

There was some additional evidence however that Al was a bad boy, biologically, and could drive you gaga in certain situations. A group of patients in the lake district near Newcastle in England died of dementia in the early days of kidney dialysis because the water in the area was quite peaty and had been treated with aluminium but not properly filtered in the dialysis process. It was said that the dementia in these cases arose directly from aluminium toxicity as it was delivered straight into the bloodstream of the unfortunate patients. Aluminium would normally be first screened by the digestive system so that aluminium doesn't get into our blood directly.

Of course we normally use aluminium salts in treating drinking water to remove impurities. It is interesting that the Lough Mask water scheme has not used aluminium for the very reason that Baxter and Travenol before them produce dialysis bags and are anxious not to have any excess of aluminium in their system. Thus, Castlebar has lower than average aluminium in the water supply so less chance of Alzheimers because of aluminium in parts of Mayo supplied by the Mask scheme? The other side of this coin, however, is that there is more organic material in the supply and when chlorinated it gives rise to some nasty chemicals such as chloroform and carbon tetrachloride because of the chlorination of the organic matter in the water. Thus, the peaty compounds that were not removed by the use of aluminium give problems if chlorinated.

There was also a famous pollution incident some years back when the water works dumped a big tank of unwanted aluminium into a small stream leading down to Lough Mask killing every fish in the stream along the way.

Another side of the aluminium story is that it may be the toxic agent causing the death of fish in areas affected by acid rain. Soils become so acidic that aluminium is mobilised and becomes biologically active and quite toxic to many fish and insects.

So be careful when you wrap the turkey in aluminium foil next Christmas you are dealing with unlucky element number 13!

Next up: Sending up Silicon

Previous element
Magnificent Magnesium




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The Elements
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Amazing Aluminium - Unlucky 13
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