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Cadmium Poisoning, Which Can Harm Your Kidneys and Reduce Your Bone Density, Surprisingly High

There was both good and bad news in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) monumental "Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals."

Good news first. The study, which CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding says is the "largest and most comprehensive report of its kind ever released anywhere by anyone," found that secondhand smoke exposure among Americans has gone down significantly, as have lead blood levels in children.

Smoking is a major source of cadmium exposure.

Specifically, from 1999 to 2002, exposure to secondhand smoke, as measured by median levels of cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, decreased (compared to levels from 1988-1991):

  • 68 percent in children

  • 69 percent in adolescents

  • 75 percent in adults

And, only 1.6 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 5 had elevated blood lead levels, compared to 4.4 percent in the early 1990s.

Cadmium Levels Raise Concern

Now for the bad news.

About 5 percent of people aged 20 and over had urinary cadmium levels at or near levels that may cause health problems. Studies have found that urine levels of cadmium as low as 1 microgram per gram of creatinine may be linked to kidney injury and an increased risk for low bone mineral density.

What is Cadmium?

Cadmium is a metal found naturally in the earth's crust, but because it reacts readily with other elements like oxygen, chlorine and sulfur, it's rarely found in pure form.

Certain forms of cadmium, cadmium sulfates and cadmium chlorides also dissolve extremely easily in water, so much so that they're rarely found in solid form.

Is Cadmium Dangerous?

Cadmium is rarely found in this pure form--it's usually combined with other elements.

Cadmium accumulates in the body and can stay there for many years. The metal accumulates most often in the bones, liver and kidneys and can cause damage to these areas. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) also says that cadmium and cadmium compounds may "reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens."

Other potential health effects include, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):

  • Breathing high levels can cause severe lung damage and death

  • Eating food or drinking water that contains high levels can irritate the stomach and lead to vomiting and diarrhea

  • Lower long-term exposure from air, food or water leads to a buildup of cadmium in the kidneys and may cause kidney disease

  • Long-term exposure can cause lung damage and fragile bones

  • Animals given cadmium in food or water had high blood pressure, iron-poor blood, liver disease, and nerve or brain damage

Cadmium has been linked to other health risks as well, including:

  • Weakening the immune system

  • Lung cancer

  • Prostate enlargement

  • Reproductive risks including premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth and spontaneous abortion

  • Behavioral problems and learning disabilities

How are People Exposed to Cadmium?

More than 90 percent of people's exposure to cadmium comes from food, according to ATSDR. Low levels are found in all foods, with shellfish, liver and kidney meats having the highest levels.

Cigarette smoke is another major source of the metal, and is absorbed by the body more readily than that from food and water. Whereas only 5 percent to 10 percent of cadmium from food is absorbed into the bloodstream, 40 percent to 60 percent of cadmium inhaled from cigarette smoke is absorbed.

Smoking more than 20 cigarettes a day can increase cadmium levels by tenfold, and the ATSDR says smoking doubles the average daily intake of cadmium.

Cadmium is also used in manufacturing batteries, pigments, metal coatings and plastics, so living near or working in one of these facilities could increase your exposure through air or water (it's estimated that 4,000 to 13,000 tons of cadmium are released into the environment every year due to such processes). Drinking contaminated water is also a source.

Nickel-cadmium batteries should be kept out of children's reach.

How to Reduce Your Exposure

There are ways to reduce your exposure to cadmium, particularly if you work in a related industry (metal processing, electroplating, battery manufacture, ore refineries). If this applies to you, be sure to carefully follow all workplace safety procedures. Also take special care not to bring cadmium dust into your home via shoes, clothing and tools. You may also want to shower when you get home to remove any dust on your body and hair.

For everyone, to reduce cadmium exposure to yourself and your family:

  • Store products that contain cadmium (nickel-cadmium batteries, fertilizers) safely out of children's reach

  • Use cadmium products only as instructed

  • Limit consumption of shellfish and liver

  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet, as that is your main weapon to strengthen your immune system

Recommended Reading

Bottled Water: Which City's Tap Water System is Making a Flood of Cash off of You?

Radon's Real Risk: 1 in 15 Homes Polluted with this #2 Cause of Lung Cancer, but Most Don't Know It!


Excite Health July 21, 2005

HealthOrbit July 21, 2005

Dartmouth Toxic Metal Research

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

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