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Cadmium has the atomic number of 48 and is found together with zinc in natural deposits and they are similar in structure and function in the human body. Cadmium may displace zinc in some of its important enzymatic and organ functions; thus, it interferes with these functions or prevents them from being completed. The zinc-cadmium ratio is very important, as cadmium toxicity and storage are greatly increased with zinc deficiency which is a common condition for alcohol drinkers as alcohol expels zinc in the urine. Good levels of zinc protect against tissue damage by cadmium. The refinement of grains reduces the zinc-cadmium ratio, so zinc deficiency and cadmium toxicity are more likely when the diet is high in refined grains and flours.


There may be as much as 40 mg of cadmium in the human body and consumption from foods can be at least 40 mcg daily. Levels vary according to region, as most comes from soil by way of food. There may be some in water from contamination and water pipes and cigarette smoke plus industrial burning of metals puts some cadmium into the air. Cadmium levels in the atmosphere are much higher in industrial cities.


Cadmium is not easily eliminated. Besides faecal losses, it is excreted mainly by the kidneys. This mineral is stored primarily in the liver and kidneys. As zinc has an affinity for the testes, cadmium is also stored there in higher concentrations than in other tissues. With zinc deficiency, more cadmium is stored. With aging, cadmium accumulates in the kidneys and may predispose to hypertension.


Cadmium can depress some immune functions by reducing resistance to bacteria and viruses. It may also increase cancer risk, for the lungs and prostate. Cadmium toxicity has been implicated in generating prostate enlargement, possibly by interfering with zinc support.

Cadmium also affects the bones because copper, together with zinc improves the absorption of vitamin D, the vitamin which aids in the absorption of calcium and cadmium’s displacement of zinc has been known to cause bone and joint aches and pains. This was first described in Japan caused by cadmium pollution there. It was also associated with weak bones that lead to deformities, especially of the spine or to fragile and easily broken bones and was fatal in many cases.


Cadmium, copper and lead concentrations increase in the lens of the eyes in tobacco smokers leading to cataracts and vision impairment.


Long term cadmium exposure can also lead to cancer, hypertension, heart and kidney disease, emphysema and anaemia.


No cadmium is present in newborns because it does not cross the placenta-foetal barrier nor the blood-brain barrier as lead and mercury do, so it is not toxic to foetuses, nor does it cause the mental and brain disorders associated with lead and mercury.


During the growth of grains such as wheat and rice, cadmium (from the soil) is concentrated in the core of the kernel, while zinc is found mostly in the germ and bran coverings. With refinement, zinc is lost, increasing the cadmium ratio. Refined flours, rice, and sugar all have relatively higher ratios of cadmium to zinc than do the whole foods.

One pack of cigarettes contains about 20 mcg of cadmium or about 1 mcg per cigarette. About 30 percent of that goes into the lungs and is absorbed and the remaining 70 percent goes into the atmosphere to be inhaled by others or to contaminate the environment. With long-term smoking, the risk of cadmium toxicity is increased. Though most of it is eliminated, a little bit is stored every day. Marijuana may also concentrate cadmium, so regular smoking of cannabis may also be a risk factor for toxicity from this metal.


Reducing alcohol intake and stopping smoking tobacco and cannabis plus consuming zinc rich foods can help reduce cadmium toxicity and vitamin D and calcium deficiency. High intake of zinc as well as of calcium and selenium will protect against further cadmium absorption and adequate body levels of zinc may displace some tissue cadmium. Iron, copper, selenium and vitamin C have been shown to increase cadmium elimination as can be measured by urine levels. Hair analysis is a good way to follow cadmium levels.

Sources of cadmium

  • Coffee

  • Refined flour

  • Rice

  • Sugar

  • Root vegetables

  • Shellfish

  • Sumac

  • Tea

  • Tobacco and cannabis smoke

Cadmium is also a component of alloys, used in electrical materials and is present in burning coal, ceramics, dental materials, storage batteries and water pipes.


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