Correlation Between Exposure to Heavy Metals in Food and the Risk of Cancers and Other Serious Health Risks

The problem of foodborne metal contamination has taken on new urgency, thanks in part to a 2021 US Congressional Report detailing high levels of metals found in infant food pulled off grocery shelves. 

Food crops can absorb heavy metals from contaminated soil, air, and water. As a result, traces of dangerous heavy metals — lead, arsenic, and cadmium — are found in common foods from rice and cereals to nuts and spinach. Felicia Wu is leading several investigations to gain a better understanding of the health risks of heavy metal exposure.

She will present the results of two recent studies at the December SRA meeting. “Results from these studies have important implications for food safety regulations, public health policies, and consumer awareness” says Wu.

In the first study, Wu, working with postdoctoral research fellow Charitha Gamlath and Ph.D. student Patricia Hsu, gathered data on the dietary intake of each metal from various sources such as food and water samples and existing studies and reports. The researchers analyzed the data to determine the strength of the association between dietary exposure and adverse health effects. 

Lead is a toxic metal commonly found in old paint, water pipes, and contaminated soil. In the study, lead showed moderate to high risk scores for causing lung, kidney, bladder, stomach, and brain cancers. It also showed moderate to high scores for non-cancer risks.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring toxic element that can contaminate drinking water and food. It can be found in rice, wheat, and leafy green vegetables, among other foods. Arsenic demonstrated moderate to high scores for skin, bladder, lung, kidney, and liver cancers. It also showed moderate to high scores for non-cancer risks.

Cadmium is a toxic metal found in nuts, potatoes, seeds, cereal grains, leafy green vegetables, and tobacco smoke. Among its sources in the environment are fertilizers and industrial emissions. In the study, cadmium revealed moderate to high risk scores for prostate, renal, bladder, breast, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers. 

Earlier this year, Wu co-authored a study on cadmium in baby food. In that paper, the researchers found that babies and young children 6 months to 5 years old are the most highly exposed to cadmium in common foodstuffs. 

In the second study to be presented, Wu and Ph.D. student Rubait Rahman conducted a quantitative cancer risk assessment for different food products in the United States containing inorganic arsenic.

Their preliminary estimates suggest that every year, more than 6,000 additional cases of bladder and lung cancers and over 7,000 cases of skin cancers can be attributed to the consumption of inorganic arsenic in the United States.


Society for Risk Analysis. “Heavy metals in our food are most dangerous for kids.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 December 2023. <>.

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska