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High Cadmium Levels Puzzle Investigators

October 24, 2003 GMT

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Authorities say they have been unable to determine the source of a toxic metal found in 11 people who died in a rural Pennsylvania county.

While investigators do not believe foul play is to blame, preliminary tests have not indicated any link between the cadmium levels and land or water contamination. ``It’s definitely been a mystery,″ said Indiana County Chief Deputy Coroner Michael Baker.

The investigation began after Russell Repine died in March 2002. The death was first ruled a heart attack, but an autopsy found cadmium poisoning.

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Repine had 352 micrograms of cadmium per liter of blood, Baker said. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets the cutoff of work exposure to cadmium at 5 micrograms.

Elevated levels of cadmium were found in 10 other people after the coroner began regularly testing for cadmium during autopsies. Those people died of causes ranging from heart failure to a drug overdose, and Baker said he could not say whether cadmium contributed to their deaths.

Overall, nearly three dozen bodies have been tested.

Cadmium is often used in batteries, paint and welding supplies. Chronic exposure can cause kidney damage, bone disease and lung and prostate cancer in humans.

Dr. Barry Gustin, medical director of American Medical Forensics Specialists in Berkeley, Calif., which provides witnesses in legal cases, said most acute cadmium deaths are from breathing fumes.

``We’ve seen a few welder deaths,″ Gustin said, but he said he’s never encountered an intentional poisoning.