I say aluminum, you say (if you’re the rest of the world) aluminium – let’s call the whole thing off! At this point you would have to have your head buried in bauxite (aluminum in its naturally occurring form) to not be aware of the impact aluminum has had on the modern world.
Soda cans, furniture, cookware, structural building supports – the number of products made with the ubiquitous material is endless. Incredibly light, non-rusting, fully recyclable, cheap, and in seemingly limitless supply, it is the metallic element of choice for an extraordinary number of everyday goods. It cannot be denied that aluminum is a miraculous metal whose industrial and commercial applications have revolutionized the modern world. Yet it is most common in products we use in our everyday personal life, and its positive aspects, especially in regards to its contact with the foods we consume, is more questionable.
Aluminum is found in buffered aspirin, most antiperspirants (as aluminum chlorhydrate), antacids, and in shampoo (as aluminum lauryl sulfate or magnesium aluminum silicate). The “miracle” metal is also found in many foods: cake mixes, self-rising flour, prepared doughs, nondairy creamers, pickles, some baking powders, and many processed cheeses. We seem to be either rubbing it on our bodies or ingesting it or pouring it on something on a daily basis, and have been doing so for years, and concern is steadily on the rise.
Aluminum is the third most abundant element of the Earth’s crust, behind that oxygen and silicone, but foremost among all metals, adding up to 7.3% by mass of the earth’s crust. Industrial aluminum is a rather “young” metal (it has only been produced for commercial purposes for a century and a half), but have been using it in its natural form for much longer. 7,000 years ago, Persians made their strongest pottery out of clay containing aluminum oxide. Three millennia later, ancient Egyptians were using aluminum compounds in medicines, dyes, and cosmetics. The Romans used various aluminum compounds as astringents; they called these alum, or the Latin alumen, giving the metal the origin of its modern name.
Aluminum does not occur naturally in its elemental state. In 1821 Pierre Berthier discovered a clay-like material that contained 52 percent aluminum oxide outside the small village of Les Baux in the south of France. In reference to the place of this most significant of discoveries, he gave the material the name bauxite. He did not realize it at the time, but he had discovered the aluminum ore.
The first commercial process of extracting aluminum was created in 1854 by Henri Sainte-Claire Deville of France, and by 1855 he was able to create enough aluminum for display at the Paris Exposition of that year. Billed as “silver from clay,” aluminum bars were shown alongside France’s crown jewels. The juxtaposition was fitting: rubies, emeralds and sapphires consist mainly of crystalline aluminum oxide. At that time, pure aluminum was valued at $115 per pound — more expensive than gold. Napoleon III proudly displayed aluminum cutlery at his state banquets, commissioned aluminum equipment for his military and even had an aluminum and gold baby rattle made for his son.
In 1886, after years of experimentation by many scientists and industrialists, Charles Martin Hall of the United States and Paul L.T. Héroult of France — both 22 years old — independently discovered a way to produce aluminum cheaply. Hall developed a method for “reducing” aluminum oxide, called alumina, to pure aluminum by electrolysis. In the electrolytic cell, alumina is dissolved in molten cryolite. A strong electric current passes through the solution and removes the oxygen, leaving deposits of nearly pure aluminum on the bottom of the bath. This method — called the Hall–Héroult process — is still used today.
Two years later, Hall founded the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (which would in 1907, be renamed Aluminum Company of America, and become the largest producer of aluminum in America). Before the end of 1888, Hall had produced the first commercial aluminum. As Hall improved his process, the price of aluminum ingots dropped from $4.86 per pound in 1888 to 78 cents per pound in 1893.
Industrialists were at first reluctant to use unfamiliar aluminum, but business grew as manufacturers grasped the benefits of this light yet strong metal. In the mid-1930s, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss predicted that “aluminum will play a large and significant part” in the “greatest period of redesign the world has known.” By the late 1930s, a pound of aluminum cost just 20 cents, and its uses numbered more than 2,000.
As is often the case (and almost always for the winning side), war was very good for business. During World War II, demand doubled as the cheap, durable material spawned a new generation of aircraft, automobiles, cooking utensils, foil, electric wire and cable. There has been no going back since. Aluminum is ubiquitous in our modern world. Other metals, such as copper, lead, and tin have been mined and used by humans for millennia, but nothing compares to the exploitation of aluminum. More aluminum is produced today than all other non-ferrous metals put together.
The bulk of the health discussion centers around whether there is a link between the absorption of aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. The idea was first introduced in the early 1960s, when neurologist Igor Klatzo at the National Institutes of Health led a study of the workings of the immune system in the brain. When Klatzo injected various solutions into the brains of rabbits to observe immune response, the animals went into severe convulsions. Investigating further, Klatzo learned that it was not active ingredients in the solutions that caused this response, but aluminum added to the solution to aid in their action. Klatzo also observed that brain cells appeared to have suffered a kind of microscopic degeneration in the form of ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ which were also characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients.
A few years later, researchers at the University of Toronto set out to look for aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer’s subjects. Using autopsy samples, they measured aluminum levels in various parts of the brain and compared levels in Alzheimer’s patients with those in patients who died of unrelated health conditions. The Alzheimer’s patients had aluminum levels two to three times higher.
A number of studies were conducted shortly after, each one discounting the last, some claiming no correlation, others an obvious one. Critics of the supposed link say that association does not prove causation. The buildup, they argue, may be a consequence of Alzheimer’s, which may cause changes in the brain that cause the metal to accumulate in brain tissue. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that exposure to high levels of aluminum may result in respiratory problems, it does not state that exposure to very small levels is harmful. The current view of the Alzheimer’s Association is that “the findings (… ) do not convincingly demonstrate a causal relationship between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, and that no useful medical or public health recommendations can be made, at least at present.”
Another issue directly connected to the aluminum health debate is BPA. BPA is found in the epoxy lining used in aluminum cans and bottles to prevent the leaching of potentially harmful properties from the metal into the food or drink within. that aluminum even NEEDS something to prevent it from coming into contact with your food or drink makes the container doubly dangerous, since BPA has long been known to have even worse health implications than what it’s put in place to protect you from! Bisphenol A is a chemical which can mimic human estrogen and which is linked to breast cancer and early puberty in women.
According to a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, a wide variety of canned food was bought and tested. In more than half the items they found “200 times the government’s traditional safe level of exposure for industrial chemicals.” Still, there are no standards for BPA; it is allowed to be put in anything, and billions of pounds are produced each year. According to EWG: “Of all foods tested, chicken soup, infant formula, and ravioli had BPA levels of highest concern. Just one to three servings of foods with these concentrations could expose a woman or child to BPA at levels that caused serious adverse effects in animal tests.”
Many cookware manufacturers have heeded the call of careful consumers, offering them pots and pans made of anodized aluminum. Anodizing involves thickening the naturally-oxidized surface of the metal by passing a direct current through it as it sits in an electrolytic solution (usually sulfuric acid). Afterward, the surface is sealed to fill in pores that form during the process and to prevent degradation. The result is a coating that is highly-resistant to corrosion, much harder, and can accept dyes readily. The leaching of aluminum residue is considerably lowered with this process. Socially responsible food manufacturers are also switching to canned goods with non-BPA linings due to growing public concerns over the obvious health issues.
Most studies seem to agree that low-level exposure to aluminum from food, air, and water, is not harmful. However there are clearly enough legitimate questions concerning its use in a number of important everyday applications to continue the debate and make us think twice before buying aluminum products. Whatever the case, it seems likely that this very valuable material will continue to be used until solid evidence shows us that without a doubt, it may not be best to chase your Rolaids with a can of tomato juice.
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