In a new study, researchers found that high levels of cadmium, a chemical found in cigarettes and in contaminated vegetables, are associated with higher death rates in patients with influenza or pneumonia.
High cadmium levels may also increase the severity of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.
The findings suggest the public in general, both smokers and nonsmokers, could benefit from reduced exposure to cadmium.
The research was conducted by a team at the University of Michigan.
Long-term exposure to cadmium, even at low levels, may undermine our defense system in the lungs, and people with high levels of the chemical may not be able to cope with influenza virus attacks, the team says.
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
Early in the pandemic, as data began 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.
In the study, the researchers instead focused on studying the potential association of cadmium to other viral infections: influenza and pneumonia.
They utilized data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1988-1994 and 1999-2006.
Nearly 16,000 participants in the two separate cohorts were used for the analysis. Cadmium was measured in urine in the first survey and blood in the second.
And because tobacco has more than 3,000 chemical components, researchers also looked at cadmium levels in nonsmokers.
They 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.
The 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.
In the meantime, the team says smokers should stop smoking.
And 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. Cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and broccoli, contain high levels of antioxidants but relatively low levels of cadmium.
One author of the study is Sung Kyun Park.
The study is published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
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