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Scientists turn to crawfish to study lithium contamination: 'Moves through the food chain and potentially into us'

"It is important to explore the effects that may be coming down the road."

"It is important to explore the effects that may be coming down the road."

Photo Credit: iStock

As the use of lithium-ion batteries increases in consumer products, scientists are concerned that once discarded, the chemical will seep into our environment. Researchers are now studying crawfish to determine the potential hazards of this public safety issue and the impact it could have on the environment.

What's happening?

In a lab at Mississippi College, biology professor Joseph Kazery and his students are studying how different organs in crawfish absorb lithium. 

"As aquatic organisms, crawfish can take up large amounts of lithium dissolved in water. Because other creatures — including people — eat crawfish, looking at them allows us to see how lithium moves through the food chain and potentially into us," said Kazery, according to an article from Phys.org. 

Why is lithium contamination concerning?

Commonly used electronics containing lithium-ion batteries — such as smartphones, tablets, and electric vehicles — are often improperly disposed of, potentially causing more lithium contamination in the environment than ever before.

At high levels in the human body, lithium can be toxic and very dangerous. It can affect the gastrointestinal tract and cause confusion and other neurological issues.

Lithium can wreak havoc in other animals as well causing kidney damage and hypothyroidism, and the damage doesn't end there. High lithium levels are also bad for plant life. 

A review on lithium toxicity in plants by ScienceDirect stated that lithium can disrupt metabolic processes like photosynthesis which ultimately can inhibit growth and yield. 

"A lot of people think the use of lithium-ion batteries is a good thing right now, but it is important to explore the effects that may be coming down the road," Andrew Doubert, one of the students working on the crawfish research study at Mississippi College, said.

What's being done about lithium contamination?

In the past, water contamination issues with chemical substances like PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have threatened public safety. Authorities work to filter and treat the water to make the supply safer. It's possible a strategy similar to this could be used in the future for other contaminants such as lithium. There are currently filtration methods including reverse osmosis that are effective at removing lithium from water.

Researchers are making progress in finding replacements for lithium-ion batteries that would be more environmentally friendly. Scientists are also working to improve recycling methods for lithium-ion battery parts, which would be better for the planet as well.

In the meantime, consumers can do their part by responsibly disposing of unwanted electronics to keep the toxic waste out of our landfills, and therefore out of our environment and our bodies.

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