Exposure to tungsten, a material common in mobile phones, jewellery or light bulbs, could lead to serious health problems including increased risk of stroke.
A research team from the University of Exeter has analysed healthcare records of more than 8,500 individuals aged 18 to 74 over a 12-year period and found those with higher levels of tungsten in their system were more prone to suffer stroke, independently of typical risk factors. Moreover, the findings have shown that tungsten could be a significant risk factor for stroke in people under the age of 50.
"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 Jessica Tyrrell, the lead author of the research published in the open access journal Plos One.
It is believed small amounts of tungsten can be released into the environment during manufacturing, making their way into water systems and onto agricultural land.
"The relationship we're seeing between tungsten and stroke may only be the tip of the iceberg,” said fellow report author Nicholas Osborne. “As numerous new substances make their way into the environment, we're accumulating a complex 'chemical cocktail' in our bodies.”
Despite acknowledging the average exposure to tungsten is currently rather low, the scientists are concerned the growing use of electronic devices increasing the demand for tungsten production and its use in manufacturing could eventually result in serious health risks in future generations.
"Currently we have incredibly limited information on the health effects of individual chemicals and no research has explored how these compounds might interact together to impact human health," Osborne explained.
The research, based on data from the US-based National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, is considered the most comprehensive analysis to date of potential health effects of the rare metal.
According to figures from the World Health Organisation, a stroke is currently the second leading cause of death in the Western world, behind heart disease. It is also the leading cause of disability in adults, often resulting in loss of motor control, urinary incontinence, depression and memory loss.