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Aluminum metal is found almost everywhere: in water, animal tissue, and plant tissue, in addition to the earth’s crust, where it is the most abundant metal. The body does not have a biological requirement for aluminum, but the ubiquity of the metal means that a small intake of dietary aluminum is unavoidable. This low-level aluminum intake is not harmful, but high concentrations of the metal can be extremely toxic. Aluminum toxicity is a rare condition, but can occur in certain specific situations. When aluminum accumulates in the body, it can result in organ dysfunction and serious health problems.
Imbalance of metals in the body, through either a too high or too low concentration, can cause serious toxicity. Prolonged diarrhea can cause minor imbalances which can normally be corrected easily through the use of electrolyte solutions. In the case of aluminum the situation is somewhat different, because the body has no biological use for this metal. There are no harmful effects associated with too little aluminum; instead, effects of aluminum toxicity are due only to excess amounts of the metal.
Aluminum is toxic in high concentrations in the body because it is similar in size and chemical properties to several metal ions which the body needs. These include magnesium, calcium, and iron, all of which are essential for good health. When there are high concentrations of aluminum in the body, aluminum toxicity symptoms result because the aluminum interferes with the body making use of these essential ions.
Generally, it is only people with impaired kidney function who are at risk of aluminum toxicity. The risk of aluminum poisoning is significantly increased because when the kidneys do not function correctly, the body is not able to properly eliminate aluminum from the body. The metal builds up in organs and prevents reduces their ability to function normally.
Toxic levels of aluminum can lead to a wide range of symptoms, because the metal can accumulate in all of the body’s organs, including the brain. Possible symptoms include anemia, muscle weakness, bone pain, bone fractures, osteoporosis, memory loss, seizures, and dementia which may appear similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
To treat aluminum poisoning, the metal is eliminated from the patient’s diet and all medications and personal items such as deodorant must also be aluminum-free. The patient is also treated via chelation therapy with a chemical called deferoxamine. Chelation is a type of therapy in which a patient with metal poisoning is treated with a chemical that binds the toxic metal. This helps the body eliminate the metal to reduce toxicity.
Death from aluminum toxicity is rare, and occurs only when the disease is not diagnosed. When a correct diagnosis is made, treatment improves the health of most people. Aluminum poisoning can cause permanent damage in the brain, however, and some symptoms such as memory loss and dementia may not be completely cured.