Biogeochemistry of Cadmium and Its Release to the Environment

  • Jay T. CullenEmail author
  • Maria T. Maldonado
Part of the Metal Ions in Life Sciences book series (MILS, volume 11)


Cadmium is at the end of the 4d-transition series, it is relatively mobile and acutely toxic to almost all forms of life. In this review we present a summary of information describing cadmium’s physical and chemical properties, its distribtion in crustal materials, and the processes, both natural and anthropogenic, that contribute to the metal’s mobilization in the biosphere. The relatively high volatility of Cd metal, its large ionic radius, and its chemical speciation in aquatic systems makes Cd particularly susceptible to mobilization by anthropogenic and natural processes. The biogeochemical cycle of Cd is observed to be significantly altered by anthropogenic inputs, especially since the beginning of the industrial revolution drove increases in fossil fuel burning and non-ferrous metal extraction. Estimates of the flux of Cd to the atmosphere, its deposition and processing in soils and freshwater systems are presented. Finally, the basin scale distribution of dissolved Cd in the ocean, the ultimate receptacle of Cd, is interpreted in light of the chemical speciation and biogeochemical cycling of Cd in seawater. Paradoxically, Cd behaves as a nutrient in the ocean and its cycling and fate is intimately tied to uptake by photosynthetic microbes, their death, sinking and remineralization in the ocean interior. Proximate controls on the incorporation of Cd into biomass are discussed to explain the regional specificity of the relationship between dissolved Cd and the algal nutrient phosphate (PO\(^{3-}_{4} \)) in oceanic surface waters and nutriclines. Understanding variability in the Cd/PO\( ^{3-}_{4} \) is of primary interest to paleoceanographers developing a proxy to probe the links between nutrient utilization in oceanic surface waters and atmospheric CO2 levels. An ongoing international survey of trace elements and their isotopes in seawater will undoubtedly increase our understanding of the deposition, biogeochemical cycling and fate of this enigmatic, sometimes toxic, sometimes beneficial heavy metal.


anthropogenic emissions biogeochemistry cadmium cadmium/phosphorus ratio marine biogeochemistry pollution trace metal 

Abbreviations and Definitions


Atmospheric Deposition and Impact on the Open Mediterranean Sea


Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program


anodic stripping voltammetry


carbonic anhydrase


cadmium containing carbonic anhydrase


total dissolved Cd


carbon concentrating mechanism


sum of inorganic cadmium complexes and free Cd ion


water concentration divided by crustal concentration for an element representing a global mobility index


dissolved organic carbon


crustal enrichment factor


standard reduction-oxidation potential in volts


Co-operative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Long-Range Transmission of Pollutants in Europe


an international program dedicated to studying trace elements and isotopes in the ocean


hydrogen peroxide and ammonium acetate mixture


high nutrient-low chlorophyll region of the ocean

K\( ^\prime_{cond, Cd^\prime}\)

conditional stability or equilibrium constant for the binding of an organic ligand to inorganic Cd species


distribution coefficient


nickel-cadmium battery


partial pressure of carbon dioxide




metric tonne = 1000 kg


atomic number



This work was supported in part by Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery Grants to JTC and MM.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Earth and Ocean SciencesUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.Department of Earth and Ocean SciencesUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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