Transferrin and protein 1, a sex linked alpha 2-microprotein, were assayed in urine from 58 workers exposed to cadmium (Cd) in a non-ferrous smelter and from 58 age matched referents. These two new markers of nephrotoxicity were compared with urinary beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2-m), retinol binding protein (RBP), albumin, and beta-N-acetyl-glucosaminidase (NAG). The response of protein 1 to Cd tubulotoxicity was similar to that of beta 2-m, RBP, and NAG. In Cd workers, protein 1 had a correlation with urinary Cd (r = 0.56) similar to beta 2-m (r = 0.48), RBP (r = 0.58), and NAG (r = 0.49). Values of these three low molecular weight proteins and of NAG were increased only in workers with urinary Cd higher than 10 micrograms/g creatinine. Urinary transferrin and albumin were similarly affected by exposure to Cd. Their response, however, was clearly more sensitive than that of low molecular weight proteins. Prevalences of positive values of these two high molecular weight proteins were not only higher but also tended to rise at lower concentrations of Cd in urine or blood. This finding suggests that in some subjects subtle defects in glomerular barrier function may precede the onset of proximal tubular impairment after chronic exposure to Cd. It remains to be assessed whether these subjects are more at risk of developing renal insufficiency.
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