What Is Cadmium Poisoning?

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Cadmium is a metal used in batteries, solar cells, alloys, pigments, and more. Cadmium poisoning occurs when someone ingests or inhales contaminated food, water, or air. If you come into contact with toxic levels of cadmium, you may experience respiratory or digestive effects depending on whether you inhaled or ingested the substance. 

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Cadmium Poisoning Symptoms

Symptoms of cadmium poisoning differ depending on whether you inhaled or ingested the metal. 

If you ingest contaminated food or water that contains cadmium, you may experience:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Tenesmus: A sensation that you need to have a bowel movement, but you don't actually need to defecate

A person who inhales cadmium may experience the following symptoms about four to 10 hours after initial exposure:

These symptoms eventually lead to severe respiratory complications, including pulmonary edema (the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid) and blood clots.

Causes of Cadmium Poisoning

Exposure to cadmium through the air is unlikely to happen unless you work in an industry that specifically uses cadmium. However, cigarette smoking can also expose you to cadmium over the long term.

People who work in cadmium-related industries may inhale cadmium because of dust or fumes in the work area. People in these industries may also contaminate food and water sources by not washing their hands or removing their clothes when going from their work area to their break area or home.

A regular person is more likely to be poisoned with cadmium through contaminated food or water. This typically happens due to mining and smelting (heat-based extraction of metal from ore) industries contaminating nearby soil or water, allowing the metal to enter the food chain.

Some plants, like tobacco, are more likely to take up cadmium from the soil than others. Other foods that may contain elevated levels of cadmium include:

  • Mushrooms
  • Shellfish
  • Organ meats
  • Rice
  • Cereal grains
  • Potatoes 

However, the amount of toxicity varies depending on the area. Since cadmium can travel long distances once airborne, it can be challenging to pinpoint the contaminating source.

Water rarely contains toxic levels of cadmium unless there is a direct contamination source such as industrial wastewater or hazardous waste dumping. 

Other sources of cadmium include:

  • Phosphate fertilizers
  • Sewage sludge
  • Batteries 
  • Plating
  • Plastics
  • Pigments 
  • Burning of fossil fuels

Diagnosis of Cadmium Poisoning

To diagnose cadmium poisoning, your doctor will ask you about:

  • Your medical history
  • Your symptoms
  • Whether you have any risk factors for cadmium toxicity
  • Whether you think you’ve been exposed to cadmium
  • How you were exposed to cadmium

Further testing may include blood and urine tests along with nail and hair analysis.

Treatment for Cadmium Poisoning

Since there is no antidote for cadmium poisoning, treatment for cadmium poisoning involves managing the symptoms that arise, such as respiratory distress. In the case of acute poisoning, a doctor may:

  • Give you intravenous (IV) fluids to rehydrate you
  • Provide supplemental oxygen
  • Put you on a ventilator to help you breathe 
  • Encourage vomiting if you’ve ingested cadmium
  • Perform gastric lavage (also called stomach pumping, a tube is passed down the throat to the stomach, fluids are introduced and then removed)

Sometimes, exposure occurs over a long period of time. In the case of chronic exposure, preventative measures are vital. These include:

  • Making sure there’s adequate ventilation in the workspace
  • Consistently wearing protective equipment 
  • Ensuring the work area is free of dust
  • Removing clothing and showering after exiting the work area
  • Avoiding eating or drinking in the workspace 
  • Frequent and thorough handwashing between working and eating or drinking

Prognosis

People can recover from acute cadmium poisoning by ingestion and experience no long-term side effects.

However, in cases where a person ingests a high enough amount of cadmium, they may experience gastrointestinal bleeding, necrosis (tissue death) of the liver and kidneys, heart problems, and metabolic acidosis (upset of the body's acid-base balance).

The prognosis is even more serious for people who inhale high concentrations of cadmium, even for just a brief period. In such cases, inhalation may be fatal. Thankfully, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this rarely occurs.

In the case of long-term cadmium exposure, people may experience a host of adverse effects such as organ damage and cancer.

Other potential chronic effects include:

  • Kidney disease
  • Lung disease
  • Immune system problems
  • Nervous system problems
  • Fragile bones
  • Low birthweight
  • Increased risk of lung cancer

Summary

Cadmium is a naturally-occurring metal. Cadmium poisoning involves ingesting or breathing in contaminated food, drinks, or air. You’re more likely to experience acute or chronic cadmium poisoning if you work in specific industries such as mining and smelting.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you’ve been exposed to cadmium either through food, water, or air, you should visit a doctor immediately. There’s no antidote for cadmium poisoning, but it’s possible to treat and manage symptoms. It’s essential to follow workplace guidelines put in place to reduce chronic exposure to harmful substances like cadmium.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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