Cadmium poisoning

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Cadmium has no constructive purpose in the human body. It, and its compounds, are extremely toxic even in low concentrations, and will bioaccumulate in organisms and ecosystems.

The itai-itai disease ("ouch-ouch disease") was caused by cadmium poisoning. The episode "Sports Medicine" in the first season of House featured a couple who develop cadmium poisoning by smoking marijuana.

Sources of exposure

In the 1950s and 1960s industrial exposure to cadmium was high. But as the toxic effects of cadmium became apparent, industrial limits on cadmium exposure have been reduced in most industrialized nations and many policy makers agree on the need to reduce exposure further. While working with cadmium it is important to do so under a fume hood to protect against dangerous fumes. Silver solder, for example, which contains cadmium, should be handled with care. Serious toxicity problems have resulted from long-term exposure to cadmium plating baths.

Buildup of cadmium levels in the water, air, and soil has been occurring particularly in industrial areas. Environmental exposure to cadmium has been particularly problematic in Japan where many people have consumed rice that was grown in cadmium contaminated irrigation water.

Food is another source of cadmium. Plants may only contain small or moderate amounts in non-industrial areas, but high levels may be found in the liver and kidneys of adult animals.

Cigarettes are also a significant source of cadmium exposure. Although there is generally less cadmium in tobacco than in food, the lungs absorb cadmium more efficiently than the stomach. This goes for marijuana as well as tobacco.

Aside from tobacco smokers, people who live near hazardous waste sites or factories that release cadmium into the air have the potential for exposure to cadmium in air. However, numerous state and federal regulations in the United States control the amount of cadmium that can be released to the air from waste sites and incinerators so that properly regulated sites are not hazardous. The general population and people living near hazardous waste sites may be exposed to cadmium in contaminated food, dust, or water from unregulated releases or accidental releases. Numerous regulations and use of pollution controls are enforced to prevent such releases.

Workers can be exposed to cadmium in air from the smelting and refining of metals, or from the air in plants that make cadmium products such as batteries, coatings, or plastics. Workers can also be exposed when soldering or welding metal that contains cadmium. Approximately 512,000 workers in the United States are in environments each year where a cadmium exposure may occur. Regulations that set permissible levels of exposure, however, are enforced to protect workers and to make sure that levels of cadmium in the air are considerably below levels thought to result in harmful effects.

Some sources of phosphate in fertilizers contain Cadmium in amounts of up to 100 mg/kg[1][2], which can lead to an increase in the concentration of Cadmium in soil. (for example in New Zealand)[3] Nickel-cadmium batteries are one of the most popular and most common cadmium-based products.

Clinical effects

Acute exposure to cadmium fumes may cause flu like symptoms including chills, fever, and muscle ache sometimes referred to as "the cadmium blues." Symptoms may resolve after a week if there is no respiratory damage. More severe exposures can cause tracheo-bronchitis, pneumonitis, and pulmonary edema. Symptoms of inflammation may start hours after the exposure and include cough, dryness and irritation of the nose and throat, headache, dizziness, weakness, fever, chills, and chest pain.

Inhaling cadmium-laden dust quickly leads to respiratory tract and kidney problems which can be fatal (often from renal failure). Ingestion of any significant amount of cadmium causes immediate poisoning and damage to the liver and the kidneys. Compounds containing cadmium are also carcinogenic.

The bones become soft (osteomalacia), lose bone mass and become weaker (osteoporosis). This causes the pain in the joints and the back, and also increases the risk of fractures. In extreme cases of cadmium poisoning, the mere body weight causes a fracture.

The kidneys lose their function to remove acids from the blood in proximal renal tubular dysfunction. The kidney damage inflicted by cadmium poisoning is irreversible and does not heal over time. The proximal renal tubular dysfunction creates low phosphate levels in the blood (hypophosphatemia), causing muscle weakness and sometimes coma. The dysfunction also causes gout, a form of arthritis due to the accumulation of uric acid crystals in the joints because of high acidity of the blood (hyperuricemia). Another side effect is increased levels of chloride in the blood (hyperchloremia). The kidneys can also shrink up to 30%.

Other patients lose their sense of smell (anosmia).


  1. ^ Syers JK, Mackay AD, Brown MW, Currie CD (1986). "Chemical and physical characteristics of phosphate rock materials of varying reactivity". J Sci Food Agric. 37: 1057–1064.
  2. ^ Trueman NA (1965). "The phosphate, volcanic and carbonate rocks of Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)". J Geol Soc Aust. 12: 261–286.
  3. ^ Taylor MD (1997). "Accumulation of Cadmium derived from fertilisers in New Zealand soils". Science of Total Environment. 208: 123–126.
  4. Shannon M. Heavy Metal Poisoning, in Haddad LM, Shannon M, Winchester JF(editors): Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose, Third Edition, 1998.

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