What is cadmium, and how can we reduce our exposure to it?

Cadmium is a toxic metal that is ubiquitous in the environment and can contaminate soil, water, and air. We are exposed to it via food and drinking water. For several years now, ANSES has been issuing recommendations to limit our exposure to this substance.

What is cadmium?

Cadmium is a metal found naturally in soil.

Certain human activities, such as agricultural (fertilisers) and industrial (metalworking) activities, can increase cadmium levels in soil.

How are we exposed to cadmium?

Food is the main source of cadmium exposure. Cadmium in soil is readily available for uptake by plants through their roots, by which it enters the food chain. Smokers are also exposed to cadmium when they inhale tobacco smoke, and workers in industrial environments are exposed via ambient air.

What foods contain cadmium?

Foods that contain high levels of cadmium include crustaceans & molluscs, offal, sweet and savoury biscuits, cereal bars, and chocolate.

The foods that contribute the most to cadmium intake vary depending on the amounts consumed by the French population; they are as follows:

  • bread,
  • vegetables,
  • potatoes and products containing potatoes.

Seaweed also tends to become loaded with this element, which is present in the marine environment: almost a quarter of edible seaweed exceeds the maximum recommended concentration.

To what degree are we exposed to cadmium?

At present, certain population groups are more exposed to cadmium through food than others. According to the second Total Diet Study and the infant Total Diet Study carried out by ANSES, the proportions of individuals whose dietary exposure to cadmium exceeds the tolerable daily intake via ingestion are as follows:

  • 0.6% for adults,
  • 14% for children aged three to 17,
  • up to 36% for children under the age of three.

What are the health effects of cadmium?

Cadmium is known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction, and prolonged exposure causes kidney damage and bone fragility in humans, particularly from oral exposure via food and drinking water.

What are ANSES’s recommendations for reducing exposure to cadmium?

In general, eating a varied diet helps limit exposure.

However, according to the Agency, it is important to act at the source, in particular by targeting fertilisers, which have been partly responsible for the increase in cadmium concentration in soil and ultimately the rise in levels of cadmium in food. To this end, the Agency proposed new threshold values to prevent health effects and better protect consumers and workers.

What does ANSES’s work on this topic entail?

The Agency conducts scientific expert appraisals to assess exposure from various sources and routes (food, tobacco). These expert appraisals have enabled health values to be established in order to limit the population’s exposure to cadmium.

  • The Agency has established a health-based guidance value, i.e. an oral daily intake of cadmium below which there are no risks to the health of the general public,
  • ANSES has recommended maximum concentrations of cadmium in industrial and natural fertilisers to reduce cadmium contamination levels in soil and food.
  • The Agency has recommended maximum cadmium levels in different foods (e.g. edible seaweed).

Lastly, ANSES is heavily involved in efforts to improve the monitoring of contamination in the food chain. In particular, it has taken part in the work on cadmium carried out by the SCA surveillance platform for food-chain safety. Recommendations have been made to improve the operation of monitoring schemes and harmonise related practices, with a focus on sampling procedures, the analytical methods used, data quality and interoperability, strengthening collaborative work, and disseminating the results and information produced.