In the early days of the 20th century, one of the most rich and fertile sections of Japan was a small region known as the Toyama Prefecture, which was on the opposite side of the country from Tokyo. Because of the richness and abundance of the water that came from Mount Tate, the area’s highest point, the Toyama Prefecture was one of the largest rice producers in the country, perhaps the world, as it had been for hundreds of years.

The mountain, however, was also rich in minerals and other natural resources like gold, silver, lead, and copper. As the rulers of Japan became bent on empire building during the late 1800s and well in the first few years of the 20th century with the Russo-Japanese War, the demand for resources to feed the war campaigns grew sharply and the mining industry boomed on Mount Tate. Unfortunately, for the people who lived and depended upon the health and vitality of the Jinzu River, this rapid industrialization would change the course of their lives for generations.

Starting sometime in 1912, illness spread through the Toyama Prefecture, but it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Whole villages were screaming from the pain in their spines and joints. Widespread kidney failure was causing major problems ranging anywhere from blood in the urine to muscle paralysis. In any event, the condition brought so much pain that the locals gave it the name itai-itai byo, which literally means ouch-ouch sickness.

For the next thirty years, no one knew what caused itai-itai. Theories ranged from simply a regional genetic abnormality to a rice-born bacterial infection. It wasn’t until the mid 1940’s that serious steps were taken to locate the source of itai-itai disease. In the 1950’s researchers began looking into the effects of industrial pollution as a possible cause, though lead was thought to be the criminal. It took all the way until the 1960s to figure out that cadmium from industrial wastewater dumped into the Jinzu River in massive quantities, namely by the Mitsu Mining and Smelting Company.

The cadmium contamination of the Toyama Prefecture became the first of the Four Big Pollution Diseases of Japan, including the mercury induced Minimata diseases from both Chisso and Showa, and the Yokkaichi Asthma from the sulfur and nitrogen dioxide. Perhaps the victims of the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor disaster may yet develop the 5th disease, only time will tell.

One of the interesting things to note about itai-itai disease was that it affected menopausal women with greater severity than other people. In some cases the brittleness of the bones became so severe that normal human body weight alone would cause fracture. Perhaps the reason it affected older women to a greater degree is because of the calcium antagonizing ability of cadmium within a population that already has a compromised calcium absorption problem.

While there have no new cases of itai-itai disease reported since the Japanese government imposed major restrictions on the cadmium wastewater dumping and improved nutrition in the region, chronic exposure to elevated levels of cadmium is no longer a problem reserved for the rural Japanese, but one that affects the entire industrialized world, especially the United States which at times lags painfully behind in terms of consumer protection standards when it comes to environmental contamination from major industries.

Cadmium is a silver metallic element of which 86% of the global demand goes to the production of nickel-cadmium batteries. 6% is used in electroplating of certain metals to improve hardness, namely steel. The remaining 8% is divided among a variety of industries, namely in paint pigments. Many colors in the red, orange, and yellow spectrum use cadmium pigments as their base. Even though “healthy” alternatives have been developed, they are also toxic and direct contact and inhalation should be avoided. In fact, as recently as June 2010, a major recall was announced on some MacDonald’s promotional drinking glasses that were colored using cadmium-based pigments and were found to be toxic because the cadmium would leak into the drinking fluids. 12 million units had to be recalled, and these units weren’t even manufactured in a foreign country, which is often used as the scapegoat, instead a company in New Jersey produced the drinking glasses.

While these sources of cadmium poisoning may generate the most headlines, the ubiquitous sources of cadmium toxicity come from three sources: combustion of fossil fuels, non-organic produce, and smoking. While the cat has truly been let out of the bag as far as the health effects of smoking are concerned, few people know about the specific toxins in cigarettes that causes the illnesses aside from perhaps nicotine. Cadmium, found in the tobacco of commercial cigarettes, even though it may not be present in extremely high quantities, it is absorbed by the lungs with significantly greater efficiency than through the digestive tract and thus enters the body more rapidly and can damage lung tissue with greater severity. While smoking is a very high source of cadmium exposure, cadmium toxicity from second hand smoke is very little because the majority of the cadmium is absorbed by the lungs of the smoker.

This does not mean that safety is guaranteed simply because you don’t smoke. Exposure to high quantities of car exhaust, in combination with a poor genetic ability to detoxify heavy metals, and perhaps being a menopausal or elderly woman, is a recipe for cumulative cadmium poisoning. Because cadmium is present in trace amounts throughout the Earth’s crust, there is a certain degree of “natural” exposure to cadmium, but fossil fuels contain a significant amount of cadmium and this cadmium is released into the air and accounts for over 20% of the global human exposure to cadmium according to the UNECE Task Force on Heavy Metals as of March, 2005. And since cadmium has a high absorption rate through the lungs, it is possible that this environmental pollution could be responsible for the increased rates of lung cancer, both from smoking and the environment. Whether cadmium is a carcinogen is the subject of some debate, of course. The controversy is whether it should be classified as “known” human carcinogen or a “probable” human carcinogen. In either case, avoid cadmium.

The leading source of cadmium toxicity, however, does not come from the air, or from the industrially polluted river waters. It actually comes from our food. The agricultural industry requires large amounts of synthetic fertilizer for commercial non-organic crops. One type of fertilizer, phosphate fertilizers, contains varying degrees of cadmium in concentrations as high as 100mg/kg! This cadmium added directly to the soil. The cadmium then goes to places: it either runs off the land from watering, and potentially enters the water table of the land contaminating wells and drinking water sources, or it enters the food through the roots. Some would argue that this is not true but I think hundreds of dead Japanese rice farmers in Toyama Prefecture would have a different opinion. It has been proven that cadmium enters the roots systems of many plants and becomes deposited in the leaves, fruits, nuts and seeds of the plant. Most of these parts we ingest.

Cadmium exposure from fertilizer accounts for over 30% of all human cadmium exposure. According to the UNECE Task Force on Heavy Metals, 80% of the human toxic exposure to cadmium comes from man-made industrial sources. The remaining 20% comes from natural exposure from forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and natural cadmium-zinc ores present in almost all earth soils. Imagine the health benefits the world would experience from an 80% reduction in cadmium exposure!

It is has been shown that the majority of the cadmium that enters the body typically concentrates in the kidneys which, even for healthy individuals, it is difficult for the body to get rid of it. This is why chronic exposure has a tendency to manifest itself as kidney-related conditions and liver problems. Other symptoms include joint soreness, anemia, high blood pressure, hair loss, and calcium deficiency.

Unfortunately, to anyone expect the blindly optimistic and the sadly naïve, this is not an outcome any of us can expect in our lifetimes. This means that we must do all we can to minimize our exposure and know our personal risk levels. In this case it is important to get tested for any genetic disadvantages that may predispose you to illness from cadmium exposure. Just because friends and family do not get sick, doesn’t mean you have those same genetic protections. In fact, cadmium has the potential to damage DNA and subsequent generations may have fewer and fewer genetic protections from environmental and man-made toxins so get tested!

Since some degree of exposure is inevitable, especially if you live in large urban areas or agricultural districts, you may need to supplement with certain nutrients to help your body prevent absorption and excrete cadmium that may have entered your system. Nutrients like cilantro and chlorella, especially when taken together provide an excellent protection mechanism against recent heavy metal exposure, including cadmium, lead, mercury, and others.

If you are concerned that you may have accumulated toxicity from prolonged chronic exposure, chelation through the use of well-tailored programs that utilize a chelating agent like DMSA/EDTA may be beneficial.

Obviously, in order to determine the amount of cadmium buildup in your system requires specific testing. Urine tests or hair samples alone may not reveal cadmium that has become stored and deposited in body organs and other tissues as a result of poor detoxification abilities.

It is important that before taking any tests, or beginning any detoxification program, or even making major changes to your supplement regimen, it is important that you consult with a qualified medical professional who is familiar with your medical history and is knowledgeable about the heavy metal toxicity and effective detoxification methods.