Cadmium, often used in electronics, may lead to osteoporosis

Kristin Rodine / McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Published Sep 16, 2011 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

BOISE, Idaho — If you use an electronic device (and who doesn’t), you carry around a significant amount of cadmium, a heavy metal that is toxic if ingested.

It won’t hurt you while you’re using your cellphone, iPod or computer monitor, but once you’re done with it, that’s a different matter. When cadmium lands in a landfill, it can end up in drinking water.

College of Idaho professor Sara Heggland wants to help prevent that by scientifically establishing the link between cadmium and osteoporosis and other bone maladies. She hopes that data will help raise the awareness of consumers and agencies and help shape the policy and practice of disposing of electronics.

“I love my iPhone. I love my iPad,” Heggland said. “But we need to come up with responsible ways to prevent e-waste from getting into landfills and our environment and ultimately into you and me.”

One recent breakthrough for Heggland and her students was demonstrating that cadmium causes osteoblasts, the cells that form bones, to destroy themselves. Now they’re studying how that process, dubbed “programmed cell death,” happens.

“In promoting the death of bone-forming cells, it therefore promotes the development of osteoporosis,” a disease that mostly affects post-menopausal women, Heggland said.

And cadmium packs a double whammy for females, since “women accumulate cadmium more during their reproductive lifetime than men,” she said. “Why that is, is still under debate.”

Lab manager Shalimar Frost studies bone tumor cells through a microscope at the College of Idaho in Caldwell.