Cadmium’s in the news. But what exactly is it?

By Carrie Johnson • Published: September 2nd, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

First Wal-Mart announced it was recalling its children’s jewelry due to fears it contained cadmium. Then Consumer Reports warned consumers of protein drinks that their product might be contaminated with cadmium. Then, of course, there was the McDonald’s incident, where the fast food giant announced a voluntary recall of thousands of Shrek-themed glasses for fear of, yes, you guessed it: cadmium.

But for all of the press it has been receiving, few Americans can tell you what cadmium is, let alone find it on a periodic table.

First of all, cadmium is one of the byproducts created when smelting some other metals. It is also found naturally in the soil, air and water. It enters the body either by inhaling it from the air, or eating food or drinking water contaminated with cadmium. It can’t hurt you if you touch it because skin doesn’t easily absorb it.

So how does it affect your health? Well, that depends on the amount of cadmium you’ve consumed, how long you’re exposed and how your body handles it. For example, workers who breathe air contaminated with a large amount of cadmium may suffer lung damage – even death. The scary part is contamination doesn’t cause any immediate breathing problems, which means there’s no warning until serious damage has occurred.

Exposure to smaller amounts of cadmium for a long period of time can weaken bones or lead to kidney damage. People who eat or drink substances that contain a large amount of cadmium may experience stomach irritation, vomiting and diarrhea.

Here’s the good news: The amount of cadmium naturally found in the environment isn’t enough to harm you. You can reduce your risk of exposure by not smoking and eating a nutritious diet. And, of course, avoiding those Shrek glasses.