Living in a society where information is readily available at your fingertips 24/7, and instant gratification can be granted with just one click is contingent on electronic devices. These devices have evolved into essential components of everyday living in a high demanding society where being in the “know” has almost become intrinsic for survival. The manufacturing of electronic devices, light bulbs, and jewelry, among other things can leave consumers exposed to a dangerous metal: tungsten. According to a recent study, high levels of tungsten in the body could double the risk of suffering a stroke, especially for those under 50.

Small amounts of the common flexible metal used for the production of cell phones, computers, and laptops can seep into the environment by soil, water, and the atmosphere during production. Lenntech, a company involved in environmentally friendly water treatment and air purification systems, originally based from the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, found acute health effects affiliated with exposure to metal include irritation to the skin and eyes on contact. Inhalation will also cause irritation to the lungs and mucus membrane for those who work closely with the metal. Until recently, there have not been any reports tying chronic conditions to the toxicant. However, with more products using tungsten, human exposure to the metal has possibly increased throughout the years.

A team of researchers from the University of Exeter sought to investigate the association between tungsten and cardiovascular disease (CVD) or stroke by using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Data on 8,614 individuals, between the ages of 18 and 74, were analyzed throughout a 12-year period with 193 reported stroke diagnoses and 428 reported diagnoses of CVD, according to Medical Xpress. The researchers also organized their data to determine the associations in a group of younger individuals between the ages of 18 to 50.

Urine samples were taken from the participants to test for the presence of heavy metals, including tungsten. Individuals with higher urinary tungsten concentrations were associated with an increase in the prevalence of a stroke — independent of typical stroke risk factors. Furthermore, the association between tungsten and stroke in those under 50 was found to be significant.

“We’re not yet sure why some members of the population have higher levels of the metal in their make-up, and an important step in understanding and preventing the risks it may pose to health will be to get to the bottom of how it’s ending up in our bodies,” said lead researcher Dr. Jessica Tyrrell, from the University of Exeter in a press release.

The authors of the study speculate the association they see between tungsten and stroke is only the tip of the iceberg. As new substances are found in the environment, it may be possible that tungsten combined with other toxicants could elevate the stroke risk in individuals and create what the authors call a “chemical cocktail” in the body.

Although the researchers did not find evidence to link the use of technology such as smartphones and laptops to the increased amounts of metal in the blood, the exposure to tungsten could increase.

Currently, the researchers have limited data on the health effects of individual chemicals as there as yet to be research on how the interactions of these chemicals may affect human health. This study remains the most comprehensive analysis of the effects of tungsten on human health.

In a 2009 article, Chemical & Engineering News Associate Editor Rachel Petkewich discussed how scientists have long regarded tungsten as insoluble in water and nontoxic. Tungsten was used in the U.S. military, where it was developed in the mid-1990s for use as "green bullets," an environmentally friendly alternative to lead-based ammunition. However, the recent research has raised concerns that the potential health hazards of tungsten could lend to the reevaluation of the toxicant in several industries. With more research set to be done on tungsten and its health risks for humans, it may be possible that the metal could be banned over time in the U.S.

The National Institutes of Health reports that about 795,000 people in the U.S. have strokes each year with 137,000 people dying in these incidents. Stroke remains the leading cause of death and disability affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. To lessen the risk of stroke, people are told to monitor their blood pressure, exercise, and to follow a healthy diet,

To learn more about stroke prevention, click here.

Source: Abo-Zaid G, Depledge, MH, Galloway TS et al. High Urinary Tungsten Concentration Is Associated with Stroke in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999–2010. PLOS ONE. 2013.