High levels of cadmium in cigarette and veggies linked to higher death rates in people with flu: Study

Long-term exposure to cadmium, even at low levels, may undermine the body’s defense system in the lungs, explain scientists


                            High levels of cadmium in cigarette and veggies linked to higher death rates in people with flu: Study
(Getty Images)

High levels of cadmium, a chemical found in cigarettes and contaminated vegetables, are associated with higher rates of death in patients with influenza or pneumonia, according to researchers. They caution that it may increase the severity of Covid-19 and other respiratory viruses. Long-term exposure to cadmium, even at low levels, may undermine the body’s defense system in the lungs, and people with high levels of the chemical may not be able to cope with influenza virus attacks, explain investigators. 

“Our study suggests the public in general, both smokers and nonsmokers, could benefit from reduced exposure to cadmium,” writes lead author Sung Kyun Park, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The findings have been published in the Environmental Health Perspectives.

According to senior author Howard Hu, professor and chair of USC's Department of Preventive Medicine and an occupational/environmental physician, the associations found in the study need to be verified in other populations and also studied with regard to cadmium’s potential impact on coronavirus-related morbidity and death. “Unfortunately, the human body finds it much more difficult to excrete cadmium than other toxic metals, and its presence in many nutritious foods means it is critical to continue reducing sources of environmental pollution that contribute to its presence in air, soil and water,” says Hu.

What did the team find?

Early in the pandemic, as data was starting to come out of Wuhan, China, a large percentage of people dying from the coronavirus shared a few characteristics, they were male, smokers and older. This prompted Finnish researcher Matti Sirén, a co-author of the study, to collaborate with Park and Hu, who a decade ago had analyzed the impact of cadmium on chronic diseases, including lung and cardiovascular diseases.

Realizing that little data is available to evaluate the link between cadmium and Covid-19, the team focused on studying the potential association of cadmium to other viral infections: flu and pneumonia. “We couldn’t directly look at cadmium body burden among Covid-19 patients in the early pandemic. Our motivation was to find a modifiable risk factor that can predispose people with Covid-19 infection to develop a severe complication and die of coronavirus,” notes Park.

The associations found in the report need to be verified in other populations and also studied with respect to cadmium’s potential impact on coronavirus-related morbidity and mortality, say experts (Getty Images)

The analysis used data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1988-1994 and 1999-2006. NHANES is conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and provides nationally representative survey data on the health and nutritional status of the American population.

Nearly 16,000 participants in the two separate cohorts were used for the report. Cadmium was measured in urine in the first survey and blood in the second. Since tobacco has more than 3,000 chemical components, researchers also looked at cadmium levels in non-smokers.

After adjusting for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, body mass index (BMI), serum cholesterol, and hypertension, scientists found that patients with cadmium levels in the 80th percentile were 15% more likely to die of influenza or pneumonia compared to those in the 20th percentile. Among those who never smoked, the difference was even greater with a 27% higher risk of mortality among those in the 80th percentile compared to the 20th percentile.

“Covid-19 may not be a one-time event. Our findings suggest that the public can benefit from reduced cadmium exposure when the next pandemic occurs. This cannot be done suddenly and takes time through policy changes,” emphasizes Park.

Besides recommending against smoking, Park says that everyone should be aware of the major sources of cadmium in their diets: cereal, rice, animal organs such as the liver and kidneys, soybeans, and some types of leafy vegetables. There are many other sources of vitamins, he said. For example, vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli contain high levels of antioxidants but relatively low levels of cadmium.

“This isn’t a recommendation for a draconian change in lifestyle, since many of these foods are typical staples of a balanced, nutritious diet, and their overall contribution to cadmium burden is likely modest. Rather, the suggestion is to consider some shifts in choices. Meanwhile, epidemiologists need to focus on the issue we raised. Increased scrutiny is needed of sources of cadmium exposure and surveillance of cadmium levels in the general population, and policymakers need to work on continuing to reduce environmental cadmium pollution,” suggests Hu.

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.