The Health Risks of Cadmium in Cigarette Smoke

Woman standing outside smoking a cigarette

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Cadmium is a natural element and a toxic metal found in cigarettes and in some foods. High levels of cadmium in the body have been linked with adverse health effects like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

One study found that people who smoke have four or five times higher cadmium concentrations in their blood than people who don't smoke.

If you smoke cigarettes, it's important to become aware of the potential side effects of cadmium. The best way to prevent health risks from cigarettes is to quit smoking.

Cadmium in Cigarettes

Cadmium is released into the environment through industrial processes like mining. It is transmitted into the soil and water. Cadmium is commonly present in the soil where tobacco leaves grow, and tobacco plants then absorb cadmium through the soil and water.

When you smoke a cigarette, cadmium turns into cadmium oxide, which goes into your lungs. Cigarettes contain 2.0 micrograms (μg) of cadmium. Up to 50% of that cadmium is absorbed by your lungs and your bloodstream.

Health Risks

The main parts of your body that are affected by acute cadmium exposure are your lungs, kidneys, and bones.

Studies have linked short-term exposure to high concentrations of cadmium oxide to:

  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Irritated respiratory system
  • Labored breathing
  • Nausea
  • Persistent cough
  • Precordial constriction
  • Stomach irritation
  • Throat irritation
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

Acute inhalation of cadmium has also been linked with the development of health conditions over time like:

  • Bacterial infections in the lungs
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Decrease in bone density
  • Kidney nephropathy (deterioration of the kidneys)
  • Pulmonary emphysema

Cadmium has been found to cause lung cancer and has been linked with kidney and prostate cancers.

Neurological Effects

Studies have shown that cadmium can affect the central nervous system (CNS), which affects how our bodies move, feel, think, speak, and recall information.

Some people who have had severe exposures to cadmium went on to experience:

  • Behavior changes
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Learning disabilities
  • Motor activity impairment
  • Neurological disturbances
  • Olfactory dysfunction (impaired ability to smell)
  • Peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage near the brain and spinal cord)

Severe cadmium exposure has been linked with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

More studies are needed to fully understand the health effects of long-term exposure to cadmium inhalation.

Non-Cigarette Cadmium Exposure

There are other ways aside from cigarette smoke that you can be exposed to cadmium, such as through food and even at the workplace.

While levels of cadmium exposure can be affected by a person's diet and occupation, the amount to which people are exposed through these sources is minimal and regulated by several government agencies for safety, which is not the case with cigarettes.

Food and Water

Cadmium occurs naturally in many foods because it can be in the soil and water. Shellfish, animal kidneys, liver, mushrooms, and root crops are commonly high in cadmium. However, most people in North America consume what is considered a safe amount of cadmium through food.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report stating that the "tolerable intake" of cadmium via food sources is 25 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per month (25 μg/kg bw/month).

Many national and international agencies have regulations in place to monitor the amount of cadmium that can be in soil (where food is grown) and in water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that the maximum cadmium level that can be in bottled drinking water is 0.005 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The EPA also rules that "the ceiling" for the amount of cadmium that can be in the soil is 85 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg).

Workplace

Those who work in industrial settings may be at risk of increased cadmium exposure. Jobs with increased exposure risk include alloy makers, battery makers, welders, pottery makers, glass makers, jewelers, refinery workers, paint makers, and textile workers.

Due to increased awareness of the potential health effects of cadmium, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a "permissible exposure limit" of 5 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). The agency regulates air quality in workplaces to ensure they are safe.

Treatment

If you suspect you are having an adverse reaction from cadmium exposure, talk to your healthcare professional right away.

They might perform an evaluation of your airways, breathing, and circulation. Your doctor may also clean out your gastrointestinal tract to get rid of any remaining traces of cadmium. You may be hospitalized so a doctor can understand the effects of cadmium on your system.

Unfortunately, there is no proven treatment specifically for cadmium poisoning.

Quitting Smoking

If you currently smoke and are concerned about your exposure to cadmium, you can talk to your doctor about your options to quit smoking.

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is a gum, patch, or lozenge that administers small doses of nicotine to help you ween off of nicotine dependence. It may help you quit smoking. There are also medications designed to help people quit smoking such as Zyban (bupropion) and Chantix (varenicline tartrate).

There are also many online support groups and in-person support groups that can help you quit smoking.

You can even connect with others who are trying to quit smoking on a quit smoking app. Reaching out to someone who understands you're trying to quit can help keep you motivated.

A Word From Verywell

Cadmium is just one of many toxins in cigarette smoke that can cause severe health effects. If you smoke and are concerned about smoking's impact on your health, be sure to talk to your doctor. They can address your health concerns and recommend a method of quitting that can work for you.

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