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What Is Itai-Itai?

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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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Itai-itai is a disease that results from long-term cadmium poisoning. The name comes from Japan, where large numbers of people in the 1950s developed the condition because of the widespread presence of cadmium in one province’s water; itai-itai means ouch-ouch in Japanese. Itai-itai disease, or ouch-ouch sickness, gets its name from the cries of pain sufferers emit. The condition is quite painful, affecting the bones, kidneys and liver where the cadmium is stored.

Cadmium is a metal that has several modern applications, including some dyes, certain types of batteries and electronics, some plastics and paints and in the protective coating applied in steel and iron manufacturing. Even at a low dose, it is extremely poisonous to humans. Cadmium was discovered in 1817, but widespread use didn’t occur until the early 20th century. Around this time in Japan, cadmium contaminated the water in a river basin. It was released into the water as a byproduct of mining concerns.

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People who lived near the Jinzu basin farmed rice fields located downstream from the pollution. The cadmium entered the rice they ate, and then proved toxic to their bodies. The environmental pollution had been going on since about 1910 in the Jinzu River, and the long-term exposure led to symptoms of itai-itai disease in humans and mass death of the river’s fish. Cadmium is slow to leave the human body, and an exposure of many years like that experienced by the people in the Jinzu basin created high levels of cadmium buildup in their bodies. The first itai-itai diagnosis was made in the area of the river basin in 1912.

Also written "itai itai," the disease can lead to a condition called osteopenia, which is a weakening of the bones because of depleted calcium levels. Weakness, fractures and pain result from this calcium loss. Itai-itai can also result in lung and kidney problems as well as cancer. A urine test can help determine if cadmium is causing a person’s symptoms, and a blood test can ascertain if a toxic level of cadmium is present in the body.

Once itai-itai has fully developed, there is no treatment. Some things a patient can do to help relieve symptoms include taking Vitamin D and calcium supplements. Exposure to cadmium should be eliminated, if possible, to protect the kidneys. In addition, because cadmium is found in cigarette smoke, smokers with itai-itai are advised to quit.

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