High levels of carcinogenic chemical found in everyday consumer products

Cadmium was commonly used to give products a bright red, orange or yellow pigment.


Cadmium is a heavy metal of considerable environmental and occupational concern. Cadmium compounds are classified as human carcinogens by several regulatory agencies.

However, international regulations and guidelines are often complex, contradictory or outdated, with legal or advisory limits ranging from 50 to 800 parts per million (ppm) of cadmium. A new study by the University of Plymouth suggests that the surfaces of common items covered by those laws may have many times more than the legal or recommended levels.

According to the study, the carcinogenic chemical cadmium can still be found in everyday household products like second-hand plastic toys, drinking glasses, alcoholic beverage bottles, ceramics, and artists’ paints. It is used to give products a bright red, orange, or yellow pigment.

Moreover, it is also finding its way towards the glass and other items through the recycling process. The highest readings of up to 70,000 ppm were recorded on the enamels of old and new drinking glasses and bottles, with cadmium detected in about 70 percent of the 197 logos, patterns, text, pictures, and cartoons tested on 72 products.

Cadmium was also found in new ceramic items such as mugs, plates, and bowls, with the highest recorded level of 40,000 ppm, and in old plastic products, including toys, with a maximum of 35,000 ppm in a decorative brooch.

Dr. Andrew Turner, Associate Professor (Reader) in Environmental Science, said: “If you asked most people about cadmium, they’d probably know very little about it. But it is listed among the World Health Organisation’s ten chemicals of major public health concern, alongside substances such as lead and asbestos.”

“As such, it is concerning to see it in such high quantities in so many household products. The health risk depends on how easily the cadmium can flake off or leach out, and additional tests performed indicate that this is greatest for enameled glassware.”

“The product labels on some items do contain warnings about the presence of cancer-causing chemicals. But the heat-resistant nature of cadmium means it is not destroyed by the recycling process, and so could be unintentionally finding its way into newly recycled articles. Given that there are non-toxic alternatives available, and knowing the effects that cadmium can have, you have to question why it is still being used at all.”

The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.