Examples of zinc essentiality and zinc tolerance

As for copper, it is also emphasized in the "Environmental Health Criteria" for zinc (IPCS, 2001) that essentiality and tolerance must be taken into consideration when assessing the impact of zinc on biological systems. The following examples again taken from the IPCS document may reflect the critical role of essentiality for the bioavailability of Zn:

"Zinc is an essential element in the environment. The possibility exists both for a deficiency and for an excess of this metal. For this reason it is important that regulatory criteria for zinc, while protecting against toxicity, are not set so low as to drive zinc levels into the deficiency area."

"Zinc is important in membrane stability, in over 300 enzymes, and in the metabolism of proteins and nucleic acids. The adverse effects of zinc must be balanced against its essentiality. Zinc deficiency has been reported in a wide variety of cultivated plants and animals, with severe effects on all stages of reproduction, growth and tissue proliferation. Zinc deficiencies in various crops have resulted in large crop losses worldwide. Zinc deficiency is rare in aquatic organisms in the environment, but can be induced under experimental conditions."

"Zinc tolerances in terrestrial plants, algae, microorganisms and invertebrates have developed in the vicinity of areas with elevated zinc concentrations."

The main causes of zinc deficiency in crops are : (1) low total zinc concentrations in soils (in sandy, calcareous and sodic soils), (2) low zinc availability (high pH, calcareous soils), and (3) high levels of phosphate and nitrogen and restricted root zones due to soil compaction or high water table. In many parts of the world soils have been treated with zinc amendments, which has resulted in a declining trend in the occurrence of zinc deficiency. However, high yielding crops (e.g. wheat) will have a greater zinc requirement that those grown less intensively (Alloway, 2002). In a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)-sponsored study in 15 countries around the world, it was found that zinc deficiency is soils was the most commonly occurring micronutrient deficiency problem. Zinc deficiency was recorded in 49% of the trials and 25% of these were acute forms with visible symptoms on crops (Sillanpaa, 1990).

Several important food crops can be seriously affected by zinc deficiency with maize and rice being the most sensitive crops, while wheat is moderately sensitive. Both animals and humans have critical zinc requirements, which means that in areas where zinc deficiency in crops is widespread, there may also be a high risk of detrimental effects on the health of livestock and people. The areas with highest risk of zinc deficiency in crops are situated in India, Pakistan, some parts of Africa, northwestern part of Sout America and Mexico, while Europe is a relatively low-risk area (Alloway, 2002).

As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently (2002) pointed out zinc deficiency as one of the most important risk factors to cause impairment of human health. When calculating the leading risk factors, as causes of disease burden among people in developing countries, zinc deficiency came up as number 5, while the rank of zinc deficiency is number 11 when the global situation is considered. WHO (2002) concludes that zinc supplementation and fortification of the food may be recommended in all regions of the world.

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