Toxicity, Aluminum

Last Updated: June 20, 2006
Synonyms and related keywords: hyperaluminosis, aluminum-related illness, aluminum concentration, aluminum intoxication, aluminum clearance, aluminum-related disease, dialysis osteodystrophy, dialysis encephalopathy, aluminum deposition, microcytic anemia, chromophilic cells, basophilic stippling, deferoxamine therapy

Author Information

Author: Michael R Edwards, MD, Medical Director, Department of Emergency Services, Beebe Medical Center

Coauthor(s): Barbara Barnett, MD, Associate Program Director, Assistant Professor, Departments of Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Michael R Edwards, MD, is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, and American College of Physician Executives
Editor(s): Lisa Kirkland, MD, Senior Associate Consultant, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Area Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester; Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD, Senior Pharmacy Editor, eMedicine; Harold L Manning, MD, Associate Professor, Departments of Medicine, Anesthesiology and Physiology, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Dartmouth Medical School; Timothy D Rice, MD, Associate Professor, Departments of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Saint Louis University School of Medicine; and Michael R Pinsky, MD, Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Bioengineering, Anesthesiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center



Background: Aluminum is a trivalent cation found in its ionic form in most kinds of animal and plant tissues and in natural waters everywhere. It is the third most prevalent element and the most abundant metal in the earth's crust. Dietary aluminum is ubiquitous, but in such small quantities that it is not a significant source of concern in persons with normal elimination capacity. Urban water supplies may contain a greater concentration because water is usually treated with the element before becoming part of the supply. Subsequent purification processes that remove organic compounds take away many of the same compounds that bind the element in its free state, further increasing aluminum concentration.

All metals can cause disease through excess, deficiency, or imbalance. Malabsorption through diarrheal states can result in essential metal and trace element deficiencies. Toxic effects are dependent upon the amount of metal ingested, entry rate, tissue distribution, concentration achieved, and excretion rate. Mechanisms of toxicity include inhibition of enzyme activity and protein synthesis, alterations in nucleic acid function, and changes in cell membrane permeability.

No known physiologic need exists for aluminum; however, because of its atomic size and electric charge (0.051 nm and 3+, respectively), it is sometimes a competitive inhibitor of several essential elements of similar characteristics, such as magnesium (0.066 nm, 2+), calcium (0.099 nm, 2+), and iron (0.064 nm, 3+). Approximately 95% of an aluminum load becomes bound to transferrin and albumin intravascularly and is then eliminated renally.

Aluminum is absorbed from the GI tract in the form of oral phosphate-binding agents (aluminum hydroxide), parenterally via immunizations, via dialysate or total parenteral nutrition (TPN) contamination, via the urinary mucosa through bladder irrigation, and transdermally in antiperspirants. Lactate, citrate, and ascorbate all facilitate GI absorption. If a significant load exceeds the body's excretory capacity, the excess is deposited in various tissues, including bone, brain, liver, heart, spleen, and muscle. This accumulation causes morbidity and mortality through various mechanisms.

Pathophysiology: Aluminum toxicity is usually found in patients with impaired renal function. Acute intoxication is extremely rare; however, in persons in whom aluminum clearance is impaired, it can be a significant source of pathology. Aluminum toxicity was originally described in the mid-to-late 1970s in a series of patients in Newcastle, England, through an associated osteomalacic dialysis osteodystrophy that appeared to reverse itself upon changing of the dialysate water to deionized water (ie, aluminum-depleted water). Previously, the only known dialysis-associated bone disease was osteitis fibrosa cystica, which was the result of abnormalities in vitamin D production that resulted in a secondary hyperparathyroidism, increased bone turnover, and subsequent peritrabecular fibrosis. In aluminum-related bone disease, the predominant features are defective mineralization and osteomalacia that result from excessive deposits at the site of osteoid mineralization, where calcium would normally be placed.

Since the role of aluminum in disease has been identified, more attention has been paid to the element, leading to its recognition in several other processes. For example, among patients with osteomalacia, there has been a closely associated dialysis encephalopathy, which is thought to be caused by aluminum deposition in the brain. Aluminum causes an oxidative stress within brain tissue. Since the elimination half life of aluminum from the human brain is 7 years, this can result in cumulative damage via the element's interference with neurofilament axonal transport and neurofilament assembly. Some experts feel it plays a role in leading to the formation of Alzheimerlike neurofibrillary tangles.

Aluminum also has a direct effect on hematopoiesis. Excess aluminum has been shown to induce microcytic anemia. Daily injections of aluminum into rabbits produced severe anemia within 2-3 weeks. The findings were very similar to those found in patients suffering from lead poisoning.

Aluminum may cause anemia through decreased heme synthesis, decreased globulin synthesis, and increased hemolysis. Aluminum may also have a direct effect on iron metabolism: it influences absorption of iron via the intestine, it hinders iron's transport in the serum, and it displaces iron's binding to transferrin. Patients with anemia from aluminum toxicity often have increased reticulocyte counts, decreased mean corpuscular volume, and mean corpuscular hemoglobin.

Other organic manifestations of aluminum intoxication have been proposed, such as a slightly poorer immunologic response to infection, but the mechanism by which it exerts its effect is complex and multifactorial.


Mortality/Morbidity: The mortality rate may be as high as 100% in patients in whom the condition goes unrecognized. Today, however, recognition by nephrologists is the norm, and increased awareness by all practitioners has led to earlier detection and overall avoidance of the syndrome. Morbidity and mortality have been diminished significantly. Prior to this, bone pain, multiple fractures, proximal myopathy, and the sequelae of dementia have been the main sources of morbidity.

Race: Aluminum toxicity has no predilection for any race.

Sex: Aluminum toxicity has no predilection for either sex.

Age: Aluminum toxicity is observed in all age groups but its end-organ effects are more prevalent in the aged, who may have diminished renal function.


History: The signs and symptoms of aluminum toxicity are usually nonspecific.

Physical: Unfortunately, physical findings are often noticeably lacking in patients with aluminum toxicity, and findings usually mimic other disease processes.