The Health Risks of Cadmium in Cigarette Smoke

man smoking cigarette blowing out smoke

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Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that occurs in nature. Cadmium is also produced as a by-product of the process of smelting (heating and melting ores to extract metals). Cadmium is present in low levels in food, and in high levels in cigarette smoke.

How Cadmium Is Used

Cadmium does not corrode easily, so it works well in batteries; its primary use. Cadmium is also used in metal plating, plastics, and textile manufacturing.

The most common form of cadmium exposure for the general population is through food and cigarette smoke.

Cadmium in Food

Cadmium occurs naturally in many foods because it is present in the soil and water. Cadmium levels in most U.S. foods are between 2 and 40 parts per billion (2-40ppb). Fruits and beverages contain the least amount of cadmium, while leafy vegetables and raw potatoes contain the most. Shellfish, liver, and kidney meats are also high in cadmium.

It's estimated that of the 30 micrograms (mcg — millionths of a gram) of cadmium the average person ingests daily, 1-3 mcg is retained by the body.

Cadmium in Cigarette Smoke

A single cigarette typically contains 1-2 mcg of cadmium. When burned, cadmium is present at a level of 1,000-3,000 ppb in the smoke. Approximately 40 to 60 percent of the cadmium inhaled from cigarette smoke is able to pass through the lungs and into the body. This means that for each pack of cigarettes smoked, a person can absorb an additional 1-3 mcg of cadmium over what is taken in from other sources in their daily life. Smokers typically have twice as much cadmium in their bodies as non-smokers.

Other Sources of Exposure

People who work in certain high-risk occupations may face an increased risk of cadmium exposure. This would include people who work with:

  • Soldering
  • Welding
  • Battery, plastics and textile manufacturing

The Safe Level of Exposure

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that a safe level of cadmium in drinking water is 5 ppb or less. The EPA believes that this level of exposure to cadmium will not produce any of the health problems associated with cadmium.

Associated Health Risks

Acute exposure to ingested cadmium can produce the following symptoms:

  • nausea, vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • muscle cramps
  • salivation
  • sensory disturbances
  • liver injury
  • convulsions
  • shock
  • renal failure

Acute exposure to inhaled cadmium can cause lung problems including pneumonitis and pulmonary edema.

Chronic, long-term exposure to cadmium at levels above what is considered safe by the EPA may cause lung, kidney, liver, bone or blood damage.

Cadmium and Cancer

While definitive conclusions have yet to be drawn, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have determined that cadmium probably causes cancer.

The Bottom Line

Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal and is present in large quantities in inhaled cigarette smoke. It damages lung tissue and can build up over time to cause kidney, liver, bone and blood damage. Cadmium is just one of the hundreds of toxins present in cigarette smoke. Waste no time kicking your smoking habit to the curb. It offers you nothing more than disease and ultimately—death.

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