The Research Project – Week Twelve, Idaho Cell Phone Bones

Continuing with our emphasis on research being done by private colleges and universities, this week’s installment of The Research Project focuses on research being done at the College of Idaho. I’ve never heard of this school before but it has been in existence since 1891 and boasts some pretty amazing statistics.

What caught my eye regarding research being done at the College of Idaho has to do with a rare metal most people have never heard of but just about everyone uses every day, cadmium. Sorry, this post will probably land in the category of “Just another thing to keep us up at night.”

Talking on a cell phone or listening to a personal music player while exercising seem as natural to most people as walking or breathing. Yet most of the dozens of electronic devices we use contain the heavy metal cadmium, the culprit in a variety of maladies if ingested. For the past decade, College of Idaho biology professor Dr. Sara Heggland and more than 40 of her students have studied how cadmium affects bone health and the onset of osteoporosis. Heggland said that better understanding how cadmium affects bone at the cellular level is crucial for doctors, scientists and public officials dealing with the health impacts of environmental toxins.

“People use cadmium every single day because it’s used in almost every electronic product out there,” Heggland said. “Those electronics eventually end up in landfills, and from there the cadmium can get into drinking water.”

Heggland and her C of I students – one of only a few research teams in the world studying cadmium toxicity and bone health – have already made important discoveries such as demonstrating that cadmium directly affects osteoblasts, the body’s bone-forming cells, by causing the cells to intentionally destroy themselves.

“In promoting the death of bone-forming cells, it therefore promotes the development of osteoporosis,” Heggland said.  She and her students are now studying the cell signals involved in that process, known as programmed cell death.

The C of I research team also has determined that cadmium gets deposited in the extra-cellular matrix of bone rather than calcium, and is looking to answer what replacing calcium does to the strength of bone cells. In addition, C of I research students have begun examining whether estrogen is connected to the potency of the heavy metal since women are affected more severely by cadmium toxicity.

Two trends that show no signs of reversing make the research by Wright, Ha and the rest of the C of I team particularly valuable. First, cadmium is being used in more products – from consumer electronics to children’s toys and jewelry – that will wind up in landfills.

Second, the population of the United States and the rest of the world is aging rapidly. Since osteoporosis affects the elderly most dramatically, figuring out how to combat cadmium’s bone-destroying afflictions would improve the quality of life for this growing age group.

“We hope this research is used to protect the public, minimize the amount of cadmium that is getting into the environment, and ultimately, to help people live healthier lives,” Heggland said.

I first became aware of cadmium through a piece that was on CBS’s 60 Minutes a few months ago. It’s pretty scary when you Google cadmium to find out all the health concerns related to it. Apparently it is not just used in making the electronics we use every day but it is also put into toys and jewelry.

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