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Minimum Magnesium Standard for Drinking and Bottled Water Would Save 150,000 Lives Annually

By Bill Sardi

This article appeared in the May 1999 issue of the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients.

A small group of mineral water bottlers is pressuring the Food & Drug Administration to establish a minimum standard for magnesium levels in drinking water, a move that scientists confirm would save hundreds of thousands of lives annually and reduce health care costs by billions of dollars.

A recently issued National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report indicates nearly 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, an essential mineral that is required for the health of living cells and normal function of muscle and heart tissues. Magnesium is provided in foods such as dark-green leafy vegetables, whole grains and nuts, but nutrition researchers say the over-processing of foodstuffs and the use of phosphates in cola soft drinks have led to mineral deficiencies, particularly shortages of magnesium. The National Academy of Sciences has just released their recommendation to increase Recommended Daily Allowances (now called Reference Daily Intake) for magnesium. Drinking water is the likely dietary component to provide magnesium since water is a regular dietary constituent and magnesium is up to 30% more bioavailable in water. The NAS report confirms an earlier 1977 NAS recommendation that the addition of magnesium to bottled and municipal drinking water may prevent up to 150,000 deaths from heart attacks per year.

The Healthy Water Association (HWA), a small group of bottled water producers based in Livermore, California, advocates US bottled waters at least provide levels of essential minerals similar to those provided by many European bottled waters. US bottled waters average only about 2.7 mg per liter compared to more than 20 mg per liter in some European brands.

The Healthy Water Association is pushing for a minimum standard of at least 25 milligrams of magnesium per liter of water. If new magnesium levels were to be adopted by the Food & Drug Administration, most sources of tap water and 700 brands of bottled water in the US would not meet this new standard.

Magnesium levels in municipal drinking waters vary, being much higher in Arizona and New Mexico and low in Florida. According to Pocket Guide to Bottled Waters, only 38 of 149 survey brands of bottled water, most of which are bottled in Europe, provide the 25 mg per liter magnesium level.

FDA Accused of Foot Dragging

The Healthy Water Association claims that the FDA received the report from the National Academy of Sciences linking magnesium deficiencies with sudden cardiac death over 22 years ago, but failed to take action then. The HWA claims inaction by health authorities has resulted in over 3 million avoidable deaths due to heart attack since 1977. By comparison, that's more loss of life than all battlefield deaths in all wars fought by the US.

Due to growth in the population, the HWA says a better estimate is that 215,000 deaths due to heart attack could be avoided annually (about 590 deaths per day) with the provision of adequate amounts of magnesium in drinking water. The HWA says about 40% of heart attacks, particularly sudden death cardiac events, are attributed to magnesium deficiency, a claim that is backed by more than 170 [medical journal reports of deaths per year].

The FDA appears to have misdirected their efforts concerning minerals in drinking water. Instead of acting upon the 1977 report by the NAS, or current report by the NAS which underscores the need to correct magnesium deficiencies in the population at large, the FDA chose to set maximum levels for toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead, in drinking water. While heavy metals are potentially toxic, they do not pose the immediate threat to life, as does magnesium deficiency. In fact, magnesium is an antidote to lead poisoning.

Danger of Excessive Calcium

The HWA standard calls for bottled waters to provide a minimum of 25 mg of magnesium per liter, suggests that the ratio of calcium to magnesium in bottled waters should not be greater than 2-to-1 and recognizes low sodium water may be desirable for hypertensive individuals.

However, some health authorities suggest too much calcium in relation to magnesium may also pose health problems. Finland had the highest ratio of calcium over magnesium, 7-to-1 on their diet, and has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. Medical reports indicate over calciumization can lead to heart spasm, asthma, arteriosclerosis, headaches, joint problems, hypertension, mitral valve, cataracts, kidney stones and other health problems. Magnesium is a natural calcium-controller. For example, magnesium-rich bottled water has been used in clinical studies to successfully remedy kidney stones.

Some researchers suggest a more balanced 50-50 ratio between calcium and magnesium in the diet. According to a report by the Center for Health Care Statistics, North Americans already consume better than 750 mg of calcium and only about 275 mg of magnesium in their daily diet, about a 3-to-1 ratio of calcium over magnesium. Because sufficient amounts of magnesium are not provided in western diets comprised of calcium-rich diary products and processed foods, achieving a healthy magnesium-to-calcium intake may be problematic. Some food supplement manufacturers have already responded to the problem by offering cal-mag in equal doses rather that the traditional 2-to-1 ratio of calcium over magnesium. Women taking calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis are now being advised to balance the cal-mag intake.

Finding magnesium-rich, low-calcium and sodium bottled water, which may be helpful to certain people with heart problems, kidney stones and other maladies, is even more difficult. Among 149 brands listed in the Pocket Guide to Bottled Waters, only one brand obtained from Adobe Springs in central California, bottled under the brand name Noah's Spring Water, is rich in magnesium and low in calcium and sodium. A liter of Adobe Springs water provides about 110 mg of magnesium and only 5 mg of sodium and 3 mg of calcium. While adults with hypertension should avoid excessive consumption of sodium, athletes and other physically active non-hypertensive adults who may lose minerals due to excessive sweating, may benefit from some sodium in their bottled water.

Economic Consequences

The addition of magnesium to the 38.5 billion gallons of water delivered daily by 58,000 community water systems in the US would cost $121 billion, which is not economical. The addition of magnesium to all water-based bottled or canned beverages would add an estimated 2 cents in production to a case of twenty-four 12-ounce beverages, or cost about $350 million annually, which is less than $2 per consumer. The Healthy Water Association estimates the provision of magnesium in bottled waters would yield $86 billion in reduced health care costs.

This page was first uploaded to The Magnesium Web Site on June 16, 1999