This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about cadmium. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Exposure to cadmium happens mostly in the workplace where cadmium products are made. The general population is exposed from breathing cigarette smoke or eating cadmium contaminated foods. Cadmium damages the lungs, can cause kidney disease, and may irritate the digestive tract. This substance has been found in at least 776 of the 1,467 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is cadmium?
Cadmium is a natural element in the earth's crust. It is usually found as a mineral combined with other elements such as oxygen (cadmium oxide), chlorine (cadmium chloride), or sulfur (cadmium sulfate, cadmium sulfide).
All soils and rocks, including coal and mineral fertilizers, contain some cadmium. Most cadmium used in the United States is extracted during the production of other metals like zinc, lead, and copper. Cadmium does not corrode easily and has many uses, including batteries, pigments, metal coatings, and plastics.
What happens to cadmium when it enters the environment?
- Cadmium enters air from mining, industry, and burning coal and household wastes.
- Cadmium particles in air can travel long distances before falling to the ground or water.
- It enters water and soil from waste disposal and spills or leaks at hazardous waste sites.
- It binds strongly to soil particles.
- Some cadmium dissolves in water.
- It doesn't break down in the environment, but can change forms.
- Fish, plants, and animals take up cadmium from the environment.
- Cadmium stays in the body a very long time and can build up from many years of exposure to low levels.
How might I be exposed to cadmium?
- Breathing contaminated workplace air (battery manufacturing, metal soldering or welding).
- Eating foods containing it; low levels in all foods (highest in shellfish, liver, and kidney meats).
- Breathing cadmium in cigarette smoke (doubles the average daily intake).
- Drinking contaminated water.
- Breathing contaminated air near the burning of fossil fuels or municipal waste.
How can cadmium affect my health?
Breathing high levels of cadmium severely damages the lungs and can cause death. Eating food or drinking water with very high levels severely irritates the stomach, leading to vomiting and diarrhea. Long-term exposure to lower levels of cadmium in air, food, or water leads to a buildup of cadmium in the kidneys and possible kidney disease. Other long-term effects are 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.
We don't know if humans get any of these diseases from eating or drinking cadmium. Skin contact with cadmium is not known to cause health effects in humans or animals.
How likely is cadmium to cause cancer?
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that cadmium and cadmium compounds may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens.
How does cadmium affect children?
We don't know whether Cadmium exposure can affect development in people. In animal studies, the babies of mice exposed to Cadmium during pregnancy had delayed development. It is not known whether children differ from adults in their susceptibility to Cadmium.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to cadmium?
In the home, store substances that contain cadmium safely, and keep nickel-cadmium batteries out of reach of young children. If you work with cadmium, use all safety precautions to avoid carrying cadmium-containing dust home from work on your clothing, skin, hair, or tools.
A balanced diet can reduce the amount of cadmium taken into the body from food and drink.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to cadmium?
Tests are available in some medical laboratories that measure cadmium in blood, urine, hair, or nails. Blood levels show recent exposure to cadmium, and urine levels show both recent and earlier exposure. The reliability of tests for cadmium levels in hair or nails is unknown.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has set a limit of 5 parts of cadmium per billion parts of drinking water (5 ppb). EPA doesn't allow cadmium in pesticides.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits the amount of cadmium in food colors to 15 parts per million (15 ppm).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits workplace air to 100 micrograms cadmium per cubic meter (100 µg/m3) as cadmium fumes and 200 µg cadmium/m3 as cadmium dust.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1999. Toxicological Profile for Cadmium. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348