Aluminum is everywhere. It is considered the third most abundant element in Earth’s soil and existed long before humans settled the planet. But we’ve never been more exposed to aluminum than we are today: We package food in it, grill it, make coffee, and add it to beauty products.
We consume small amounts of aluminum every day from all of these sources. But unlike iron or zinc, the light metal does not perform any function in our body, on the contrary: aluminum in the body can disrupt processes and is suspected of being harmful to health.
Can aluminum cause Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer?
This aluminum in large doses Nervous system, bones and kidneys is indisputable. This became clear no later than the 1970s, when a number of dialysis patients suddenly developed dementia-like symptoms such as speech problems and memory loss. Many also suffered from brittle bones and anemia.
The cause was later determined to be aluminum salt, which was contained in high concentrations in the dialysate solution. They were deposited in the brain tissue of the victims. It has been suspected that aluminum intake may also be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The hypothesis was tested in various studies, but was not confirmed.
In addition to Alzheimer’s disease, the connection between aluminum and breast cancer has also been repeatedly discussed. The discussions received new impetus thanks to 2017 study, in which 418 women, half of whom had breast cancer, were asked about their deodorant consumption. The result: Women who said they used deodorants containing aluminum several times a day had a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Increased concentrations of aluminum in cancer cells were also found.
But no matter how obvious the result may seem, the study could not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between breast cancer and the use of deodorants containing aluminum. Today, the accumulation of aluminum in tumor cells is associated with metabolic disorders of these cells.
Research using laboratory experiments on rats confirmed this assumption: their cancer cells also had increased concentrations of aluminum, although they were not exposed to an increased dose of the light metal. In general, the carcinogenic effect of light metal has not yet been proven.
How safe is aluminum?
Today, dialysate fluids no longer contain aluminum salts. However, some medications, foods, and everyday products contain aluminum, and we consume small amounts of aluminum every day.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has defined one milligram of aluminum per kilogram of body weight as the Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI). A person weighing 60 kilograms can consume 60 milligrams of aluminum per week throughout his life without any health risks. The joint expert panel of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) even calls double the dose, that is, two milligrams per kilogram of body weight, as the maximum dose.
However, according to the BfR, the higher of the two limit values is often exceeded. Infants, young children and adults consume 3.5 times more aluminum than the EFSA recommendation. Teenagers aged 11 to 14 years are even more affected: they even reach 5 times more, since they consume the same amount of food and cosmetics as adults, but have less body weight.
Aluminium: bioavailability is critical
The fact that the limits are exceeded does not necessarily have to be a problem. There is always a large margin of safety between the established limit value and the actual harmful dose. Most aluminum is excreted naturally from the body anyway; only part remains in the body.
What matters is bioavailability, that is, how much actually enters the systemic circulation. However, it is difficult to measure how high the bioavailability of aluminum in individual sources actually is, and studies have repeatedly shown wildly different results. That’s why the BfR warned about aluminum in cosmetics for a long time – until it withdrew its assessment in 2020.
The reason was a 2019 study that concluded that the bioavailability of aluminum in deodorants, for example, was only 0.00192 percent—and therefore significantly lower than expected. The BfR now uses this value to assess risk and states that, based on current knowledge, there is unlikely to be a health risk from the use of antiperspirants.
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How do we absorb more aluminum?
Regular use of deodorant in itself is harmless. But it does contribute to the total amount consumed each day—and that ultimately makes all the difference. How much aluminum a person consumes depends on his lifestyle. The BfR identifies food as the main source.
Aluminum compounds are often added to foods as additives, designated by E numbers. Aluminum can also be found in unprocessed foods such as vegetables or grains if plants absorb it through the soil. According to the BfR, the largest sources of aluminum in food are:
- tea drinks,
- mixed salads from raw vegetables,
- As well as cocoa and chocolate products.
- Multigrain baked goods.
However, these products accounted for only about 36 percent of total consumption. Although the bioavailability of cosmetic products on the skin is estimated to be relatively low, food packaging, aluminum foil, cookware, and grill pans in particular represent a significant source of aluminum when misused. If aluminum comes into contact with acids and salts, aluminum ions and …can be transferred into food.
Aluminum in Coffee: Are Espresso Coffee Makers Safe?
Classic Italian coffee makers are also made of aluminum and are therefore always in the spotlight. However, according to a BfR study, the amount of aluminum absorbed by coffee is small. “When aluminum coffee makers are used for the first time, a protective layer is formed which significantly reduces possible aluminum transfers,” explains a BfR spokesman.
However, this protective layer can break down when washed in the dishwasher, and the aluminum can be released with your next coffee. However, here too, volumes are expected to be below the recommended value by the Council of Europe resolution on metals and alloys, the representative said. Therefore, you should not prohibit the use of a coffee maker in the kitchen, even if it has been washed in the dishwasher: just pour out the first coffee, and the protective layer will form again.
How to protect yourself from aluminum in everyday life?
So you don’t have to panic about aluminum in your everyday life. To keep the overall amount to a minimum, experts still recommend avoiding aluminum where possible without problems. For example, whitening toothpaste, which, unlike regular toothpaste, contains a higher concentration of aluminum compounds.
In general, when purchasing cosmetic products, you should always look at the composition: all aluminum compounds should be indicated there (for example, alum or aluminum chlorohydrate). It is also important not to apply cosmetics to damaged skin. Minor injuries, such as after shaving, make it easier for aluminum to penetrate the skin.
It is also recommended to pay attention to the ingredients of processed foods: when it comes to additives, aluminum compounds are hidden under E numbers: E 173, E 520, E 521, E 523, E 541 and E 554–E 556. As for unprocessed foods. However, aluminum is harder to avoid because there are no ingredient charts on salads and vegetables. The BfR therefore recommends eating as varied and varied a diet as possible to avoid one-sided stress.
Perhaps the most important tip concerns the preparation and storage of food. Acidic foods such as apples, tomatoes, rhubarb, and salty foods such as fish, marinated meats or cheese should not be wrapped in aluminum foil or in contact with aluminum cookware. Acids and salts can cause aluminum ions to dissolve and enter food in very high concentrations. Therefore, reusable stainless steel bowls are more suitable for grilling and storage.
- Written request to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)
- alzheimer-forschung.de: “Aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease: current status“
- pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: “Occurrence, exposure, effects, recommended intake and possible dietary intake of selected micronutrients“
- thelancet.com: “Underarm cosmetic product use in relation to breast cancer risk: a case-control study“
- pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: “A systematic review of the potential health risks associated with pharmaceutical, occupational and consumer exposure to metallic and nano-sized aluminum, aluminum oxides, aluminum hydroxide and its soluble salts.“
- lebensmittelverband.de: “List of additives and E numbers“
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