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Seem to be getting more cadmium than calcium? Here's a look at health risks

June 4, 2010 |  8:14 am

Dreamworks McDonald's has decided to recall a lot -- a whole heckuva lot -- of Shrek drinking glasses because they're contaminated with cadmium, a heavy metal that can do unpleasant things in, and to, the body.

And Consumer Reports announced earlier this week that an analysis of protein drinks had found that some were contaminated with, among other things, cadmium.

That followed Wal-Mart's announcement in May that it was pulling Miley Cyrus-branded kids jewelry because it was tainted with, yes, cadmium.

For a metal that most Americans would be hard-pressed to locate on the periodic table much less when it's trying to pass itself off as an innocuous everyday component of innocuous everyday objects, cadmium certainly seems to be the "it" element of the day. Obviously, it's time for a primer.

Here's one for chemistry buffs. Atomic number, 48. Symbol, Cd. Number of neutrons, 64...

Not doing it for you? Understandable. Check out this to-the-point cadmium fact sheet from the Illinois Deaprtment of Public Health.

The fact sheet begins by stating that cadmium is one of the byproducts you get when smelting some other metals, and that the stuff is found naturally in the air, water and soil. More to the point:

"Cadmium can enter your body from smoking tobacco, eating and drinking food and water containing cadmium, and inhaling it from the air. Your skin does not easily absorb cadmium so touching cadmium will not likely cause adverse health effects."

Here's the entire answer to this question: "How can cadmium affect my health?"

"Health effects caused by cadmium depend on how much has entered your body, how long you have been exposed and how your body responds.

Some workers who breathe air with high levels of cadmium over a short period of time may experience lung damage or possibly death. Breathing cadmium in air does not usually cause immediate breathing problems or any warning signs. Therefore, exposure may continue until serious lung damage has occurred. Most naturally-occurring cadmium levels found in the environment are not high enough to cause lung damage. Breathing lower levels of cadmium over several years can result in a buildup of cadmium in the kidneys and lead to kidney disease. It also can cause bones to become weaker. If you eat food or drink water that contains large amounts of cadmium, stomach irritation, vomiting and diarrhea may result.

Women exposed to cadmium in the workplace may have low birth weight babies; however exposure to cadmium at normal environmental levels is not likely to cause low birth weight infants. Rodents exposed to cadmium in air have higher rates of lung cancer, liver damage and changes in the immune system. There is no evidence that cadmium causes cancer at the low levels normally found in the environment."

The fact sheet also explains testing for exposure, reducing exposure and the like.

That's not to say that cadmium exposure isn't serious. Here's what the Occupational Safety & Health Administration has to say about the health effects of chronic cadmium exposure. The greatest risks are of lung cancer and kidney damage.

And forgive the obvious, but, no, the cadmium-calcium comparison in the headline isn't meant to be taken literally. 

Here's the McDonald's recall story and the announcement from the Consumer Product Safety Commission

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: A scene from "Shrek Forever," which has been the subject of a promotional tie-in with McDonald's. The fast-food chain has offered up Shrek-bedecked Happy Meals and the aforementioned drinking glasses. Credit: DreamWorks Animation

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