Cadmium toxicity occurs when a person breathes in high levels of cadmium from the air, or eats food or drinks water containing high levels of cadmium. Cadmium is a naturally occurring metal, but it is usually present in the environment as a mineral combined with other elements (eg, oxygen, chlorine, sulfur). Either short-term or long-term exposure to cadmium can cause serious health problems. If you suspect you have been exposed to cadmium, contact your doctor immediately.
Most cadmium used in the US is a byproduct of the productions of metals such as zinc, lead, and copper. It is also found in the following consumer products:
- Metal coatings
- Some metal alloys
When cadmium enters the air, it binds to small particles. It falls to the ground or water as rain or snow, and may contaminate fish, plants, and animals. Improper waste disposal and spills at hazardous waste sites may cause cadmium to leak into nearby water and soil.
Having skin contact with cadmium is not known to cause health problems, but the following exposures to cadmium can cause serious health problems:
- Breathing air that contains high levels of cadmium
- Eating food containing relatively high levels of cadmium (eg, shellfish, liver, kidney meats—but highest levels are often found in potatoes and leafy vegetables)
- Drinking water contaminated with cadmium
- Breathing in cigarette smoke; smoking doubles the average daily intake of cadmium
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition. Anyone can develop cadmium toxicity as a result of cadmium exposure. Certain people are more likely to be exposed to cadmium. The following factors increase your chances of being exposed to cadmium. If you have any of these risk factors, tell your doctor:
- Living near hazardous waste sites or industrial factories that emit cadmium into the air
- Working in a metal smelting and/or refining plant
- Working in a plant that produces cadmium products (eg, batteries, coatings, plastics, pigments)
- Having a nutritional deficiency in calcium, iron, protein, and/or zinc
Eating food or drinking water contaminated with high levels of cadmium can result in:
- Vomiting / nausea
- Stomach cramps
- Kidney damage
- Fragile bones
Breathing in cadmium can result in:
- Lung damage (chest pain or shortness of breath)
- Kidney disease
- Fragile bones
Lung Damage from Toxic Inhalation
© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.
There is no conclusive evidence that cadmium can cause lung cancer but, as a precaution, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified cadmium as a probable human carcinogen in humans.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Tests may include the following:
- Blood tests
- Urine tests
- Hair or nail analysis
- Neutron activation analysis—a test to measure cadmium levels inside your liver and kidneys
There is no effective treatment for cadmium toxicity. Avoid exposure. Your treatment will be designed to help manage and relieve your symptoms. You may be given vitamin D for the weak bones.
To help reduce your chances of getting cadmium toxicity, take the following steps:
- Do not smoke. Smoking is the single most important source of cadmium intake for most persons.
- Identify potential sources of cadmium in and around your home, at work, and where your children play.
- If you maintain a vegetable garden, consider having fertilizers tested for cadmium. Some fertilizers have been found to be high in cadmium, which may then concentrate in your vegetables. Avoid any use of cadmium containing fungicides near your vegetable gardens.
- Eat a balanced diet that provides enough calcium, iron, protein, and zinc.
- Take inventory of and properly store (out of the reach of children) cadmium-containing products in your home (eg, fungicides, batteries, metals, fabric dyes, ceramic/glass glazes, fertilizer); check the label for cadmium or call the manufacturer to find out if the product contains cadmium.
- Keep nickel-cadmium batteries out of the reach of small children and find out how to properly dispose of these batteries from your local waste disposal office.
- Read instructions for safely using cadmium-containing fungicides or fertilizers on your lawn or garden.
- If you have a water well, have your water tested for the presence of cadmium.
- If cadmium is present in your well water, consider using bottled water for drinking or install a water filter that removes cadmium and other metals from drinking water.
- If you work around cadmium, talk to your occupational health and safety officer to find out if you could be bringing cadmium home on your clothing, skin, hair, tools, or other objects.
- Do not allow young children to play in or around hazardous waste sites.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
US Environmental Protection Agency
BC Health Guide, British Columbia Ministry of Health
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Cadmium compounds. Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/cadmium.html . Accessed February 21, 2006.
Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine . 16th ed. McGraw Hill; 2005.
Public health statement for cadmium. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/phs5.html . Accessed February 21, 2006.
Safety and health topics: cadmium. US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration website. Available at: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/cadmium/ . Accessed February 21, 2006.
ToxFAQs for cadmium. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts5.html . Accessed February 21, 2006.
Last reviewed March 2008 by Mark A. Best, MD, MPH, MBA
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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