Cadmium ranks close to lead and mercury as a metal of current toxicological concern. Cadmium is used in electroplating and galvanization, and in plastics, paint pigments (cadmium yellow), and nickel-cadmium batteries. Because <5% of the metal is recycled, environmental pollution is an important consideration. Coal and other fossil fuels contain cadmium, and their combustion releases the element into the environment. Extraction and processing of zinc and lead also lead to environmental contamination with cadmium. Workers in smelters and other metal-processing plants may be exposed to high concentrations of cadmium in the air; however, for most of the population, food is the major source of cadmium.

Cadmium occurs only in one valency state (2+) and does not form stable alkyl compounds or other organometallic compounds of known toxicological significance. Cadmium initially is distributed to the liver and then redistributes slowly to the kidney as cadmium—metallothionein (Cd—MT), with ~50% of the total-body burden in the liver and kidney after distribution. Cadmium and several other metals induce the expression of metallothionein, a cysteine-rich protein with high affinity for metals such as cadmium and zinc. Metallothionein protects cells against cadmium toxicity by preventing the interaction of cadmium with other proteins.

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