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Scand J Work Environ Health. 1998;24 Suppl 1:1-51.

Health effects of cadmium exposure--a review of the literature and a risk estimate.

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Department of Environmental Health, Norrbacka, Karolinska Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden.

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  • Scand J Work Environ Health 1998 Jun;24(3):240.


This report provides a review of the cadmium exposure situation in Sweden and updates the information on health risk assessment according to recent studies on the health effects of cadmium. The report focuses on the health effects of low cadmium doses and the identification of high-risk groups. The diet is the main source of cadmium exposure in the Swedish nonsmoking general population. The average daily dietary intake is about 15 micrograms/day, but there are great individual variations due to differences in energy intake and dietary habits. It has been shown that a high fiber diet and a diet rich in shellfish increase the dietary cadmium intake substantially. Cadmium concentrations in agricultural soil and wheat have increased continuously during the last century. At present, soil cadmium concentrations increase by about 0.2% per year. Cadmium accumulates in the kidneys. Human kidney concentrations of cadmium have increased several fold during the last century. Cadmium in pig kidney has been shown to have increased by about 2% per year from 1984-1992. There is no tendency towards decreasing cadmium exposure among the general nonsmoking population. The absorption of cadmium in the lungs is 10-50%, while the absorption in the gastrointestinal tract is only a few percent. Smokers have about 4-5 times higher blood cadmium concentrations (about 1.5 micrograms/l), and twice as high kidney cortex cadmium concentrations (about 20-30 micrograms/g wet weight) as nonsmokers. Similarly, the blood cadmium concentrations are substantially elevated in persons with low body iron stores, indicating increased gastrointestinal absorption. About 10-40% of Swedish women of child-bearing age are reported to have empty iron stores (S-ferritin < 12 micrograms/l). In general, women have higher concentrations of cadmium in blood, urine, and kidney than men. The population groups at highest risk are probably smokers, women with low body iron stores, and people habitually eating a diet rich in cadmium. According to current knowledge, renal tubular damage is probably the critical health effect of cadmium exposure, both in the general population and in occupationally exposed workers. Tubular damage may develop at much lower levels than previously estimated, as shown in this report. Data from several recent reports from different countries indicate that an average urinary cadmium excretion of 2.5 micrograms/g creatinine is related to an excess prevalence of renal tubular damage of 4%. An average urinary excretion of 2.5 micrograms/g creatinine corresponds to an average concentration of cadmium in renal cortex of 50 micrograms/g, which would be the result of long-term (decades) intake of 50 micrograms per day. When the critical concentrations for adverse effects due to cadmium accumulation are being evaluated, it is crucial to consider both the individual variation in kidney cadmium concentrations and the variations in sensitivity within the general population. Even if the population average kidney concentration is relatively low for the general population, a certain proportion will have values exceeding the concentration where renal tubular damage can occur. It can be estimated that, at the present average daily intake of cadmium in Sweden, about 1% of women with low body iron stores and smokers may experience adverse renal effects related to cadmium. If the average daily intake of cadmium would increase to 30 micrograms/day, about 1% of the entire population would have cadmium-induced tubular damage. In risk groups, for example, women with low iron stores, the percentage would be higher, up to 5%. Both human and animal studies indicate that skeletal damage (osteoporosis) may be a critical effect of cadmium exposure. We conclude, however, that the present evidence is not sufficient to permit such a conclusion for humans. We would like to stress, however, that osteoporosis is a very important public health problem worldwide, but especially in the Scandinav.

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