Clinical observations of bone pain, abnormal gait, and unusual fractures during remission of leukemia led us to assess mineral status in a cohort of 16 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia treated with intensive chemotherapy. During maintenance and 6 months after the completion of therapy, blood and urine were analyzed for calcium and magnesium and blood for osteocalcin, vitamin D, and parathyroid hormone. Bone mineral content and bone width of the distal one third of the radius of the nondominant arm was measured by single-photon absorptiometry. During therapy, mild ionic hypocalcemia (less than 1.19 mmol/L) and hypomagnesemia (less than 0.77 mmol/L) were demonstrated in 9 and 8 of 16 children, respectively; hypercalciuria (8/16) and hypomagnesiuria (12/16) were also observed. Plasma osteocalcin values correlated with plasma magnesium levels (r = 0.54; p less than 0.05). Oral magnesium supplements normalized plasma magnesium, calcium, and osteocalcin levels, all of which were normal at the postchemotherapy study. Plasma 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D levels were nondetectable (less than 8 ng/ml) in 12 of 13 patients receiving therapy and in 7 of 14 patients not receiving therapy; alkaline phosphatase activity increased significantly after therapy (179 +/- 86 to 340 +/- 101 units/L), and parathyroid hormone levels were normal in both studies. Bone mineral content/bone width ratio was less than 1 SD below the mean for age- and sex-related population standards in 70% of patients. These data indicate that alterations in magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D metabolism in children treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia may be instrumental in inducing or sustaining altered bone turnover during chemotherapy.