Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Cadmium is a heavy metal found naturally in the earth’s crust. It is usually found as a mineral combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur. Cadmium is used in many industries and is essential in the production of batteries, certain alloys, coatings, solar cells, plastic stabilizers, and pigments. It is also found in significant quantities in cigarette smoke.

Mining and other similar industrial activities are the main source of cadmium in the environment. Once released, cadmium and cadmium compounds are relatively water soluble and, as a result, are more mobile in most mediums such as soil and water. Furthermore, they are generally more bioavailable and tend to accumulate in plant and animal life. Because of this, the main source of cadmium exposure in non-smokers is their diet. Among smokers, cigarette smoke is the main source of exposure, with numerous studies identifying cadmium blood levels 4-5 times higher than the normal population.

Cadmium is toxic to humans, affecting multiple organs/systems including the kidneys, bones and lungs. Additionally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies cadmium as a Class 1 carcinogen. Cadmium bioaccumulates in the human body, especially in the kidneys. The accumulation of cadmium in the kidneys leads to loss of kidney function due to decreased reabsorption of proteins, glucose, and amino acids. Skeletal damage in both human and animals exposed to high levels of cadmium has been observed, while chronic obstructive airway disease has been documented among workers.

Farm workers and other residents of China’s Hunan province have experienced an epidemic of cadmium poisoning as recently as 2014. Since the early 2000s, smelting plants proliferated in the area, operating with very little government oversight. The result was heavily contaminated rice and other vegetables grown in the area. Locals developed multiple complications, including “itai-itai” disease – a sickness first recognized in Japan in the 1960s. Although some regulations from the Chinese government have limited farming activities in land with high cadmium levels, the health effects in the population remain- yet another example of industry putting profit over a community’s health.

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