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after shying away from highly poisonous Cadmium pigments in the 90s many artists and manufacturers have recently reinstated a more extensive palette of cadmium colours into their work spaces. Due to the very high toxicity, and the difficulty in avoiding exposure, there is anecdotal evidence that some artists are suffering severe and sometimes potentially irreversible health problems as a result of this development.

Cadmium Poisoning

European Chemical Agency
Mechanism of toxicity

Cadmium (Cd) is an extremely toxic industrial and environmental pollutant classified as a human carcinogen  – according to International Agency for Research on Cancer;

– according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and 1B carcinogen classified   by exposure may occur. Regulations that set permissible levels of exposure, however, are enforced to protect workers and to make sure that levels of cadmium in the air are considerably below levels thought to result in harmful  effects.

Artists who work with cadmium pigments, which are commonly used in strong oranges, reds, and yellows, can easily accidentally ingest dangerous amounts, particularly if they use the pigments in dry form, as with chalk pastels, or in mixing their own   paints.

What is cadmium?

Cadmium, in its purest form, is a soft silver-
white metal that is found naturally in the earth’s
crust. However, the most common forms of
cadmium found in the environment exist in
combinations with other elements. For
example, cadmium oxide (a mixture of
cadmium and oxygen), cadmium chloride (a
combination of cadmium and chlorine), and
cadmium sulfide (a mixture of cadmium and
sulfur) are commonly found in the environment.

Cadmium doesn’t have a distinct taste or

How can cadmium enter and leave your

Cadmium can get into your blood stream by
eating and drinking cadmium-contaminated
food or water and by breathing cadmium-
contaminated air.

How can you be exposed to cadmium?

You can be exposed to cadmium in the work
place by breathing cadmium-contaminated air.
If you work for a battery manufacturer or work
in metal soldering or welding, then workplace
exposure to cadmium may be greater.

Exposure can also occur by eating foods
containing low levels of cadmium. For most of
us, the most common source of exposure to
cadmium is mainly through eating food,
especially shellfish, liver, and kidney meats.

What are the health effects of exposure to

Exposure to cadmium can cause a number of
harmful health effects. Eating food or drinking
water with high levels of cadmium can
severely irritate or bother your stomach and
cause vomiting and diarrhea. Breathing high
doses of cadmium can irritate and damage
the lungs and can cause death.

However, the greatest concern is from
exposure to lower doses of cadmium over a
long period of time. The lower and long-term
exposure to cadmium through air or through
diet can cause kidney damage. Although the
damage is not life-threatening, it can lead to
the formation of kidney stones and affect the skeleton,
which can be painful and debilitating.
Lung damage has also been observed.

The results of some animal studies show that
animals given cadmium-contaminated food
and water show high blood pressure, iron-poor
blood, liver disease, nerve damage or brain
damage. These effects have not been
observed in humans.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services determined that cadmium and certain
cadmium compounds are probable or
suspected carcinogens (substances that
cause cancer).

What levels of exposure have resulted in
harmful health effects?

In general, the amount of cadmium that will
cause health problems will vary depending on:
(1) the type of exposure (eating or breathing),
(2) the duration of the exposure (short- or long-
term), and (3) the form of cadmium (pure
cadmium or some combination).
Studies show that humans can experience
lung irritation after breathing as little as 1.0
milligrams per cubic meter of air (mg/m3) of
cadmium-contaminated air for a short period of
time (less than or equal to 14 days).

Breathing 0.01 mg/m3 of cadmium-
contaminated air over the long-term (greater
than 14 days) has resulted in chronic lung
disease and kidney disease in humans.

Humans that eat or drink cadmium-
contaminated food and water for a short period
of time (less than 14 days) in amounts of 0.05
milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day
(mg/kg/day) can experience stomach irritation.
Long-term exposure (greater than 14 days) in
amounts of 0.005 mg/kg/day cause relatively
little risk of injury to the kidney or other tissues.

Exposure to cadmium through food is typical
for most people but is not a major health
concern. This is because the cadmium
present in the body from our diet is about
0.0004 mg/kg/day. This figure is about ten
times lower than the level of cadmium that
causes kidney damage from eating
contaminated food.

Where can you get more information?
Contact your state health or environmental
department, or:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road N.E., E-29
Atlanta, Georgia 30333


excerpt from 'Cadmium', on:

Cadmium Sulfide (Wikipedia)

The previously proposed ban on cadmium pigments would have eliminated cadmium pigments in artists' paints and stimulated discussion of cadmium in the arts.  Although cadmium pigments are suspected carcinogens according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Center for Safety in the Arts believes that brush painting with cadmium pigments can be done safely using simple precautions to prevent accidental ingestion.   Although there is legitimate concern about cadmium release into the environment, only small amounts of cadmium pigment are disposed of during brush cleaning.

Most professional artists we have talked to feel there is no adequate substitute for cadmium pigments at present, and very little cadmium pigment is wasted in the painting process.  If cadmium pigments are available only as a specialty item for artists' paints, then the price will inevitably increase substantially.  This will probably have the effect of restricting cadmium pigments to serious painters and limit its use among hobby painters.  However, we would oppose the use of cadmium pigments in schools.

The other major effects of a cadmium ban among artists would be a ban on cadmium-containing silver solders.  We have seen a number of cases of chemical pneumonia and kidney damage among jewelers using these low-melting silver solders.  In addition, there is evidence that the cadmium oxide fumes can cause lung cancer in humans.

Art Hazard News, Volume 12, No. 9, 1989

This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1989. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.