If I remember correctly Plutonium has the added issue of being chemically toxic.
@justlen, I remember hearing this too over the years. I tried tracking this down last night, and felt like I was getting lost in a swamp. It looks like there was a huge amount of work done on toxicology and biological effects since the 40s, but despite that, questions remain.
The general conclusion seems to be that Pu is chemically/biologically quite toxic - folks should be worried if they see it coming their way (assuming that is even a plausible scenario; I simply don’t know) - but not as dramatically so as its past reputation would indicate; i.e., Pu or Pu-oxide particulates would not be the Particles of Instant Death that this element’s common reputation implies. A few references said it was a “bone seeker” like radium - that’s certainly bad. References also said that it was not readily absorbed by the body (good news), but also not eliminated quickly, once absorbed (bad news).
The kind of studies that would best answer remaining questions definitively - testing on live humans - would of course be insanely cruel and unethical. In fact, some of the early studies did involve human subjects, and such research would now be absolutely forbidden in the U.S. So we are left with a lot of animal studies, and reports of clinical work from accidental human exposures, and a few unethical human exposures. Despite the remaining ambiguities on the degree and nature of its toxicity, I actually think we know enough to say hey, this is really bad shit! Let’s take every precaution to avoid environmental release, mmkay?
Some excerpts from far & wide:
Under the heading “Toxicity and health effects” at this link:
Despite being toxic both chemically and because of its ionising radiation, plutonium is far from being “the most toxic substance on Earth” or so hazardous that “a speck can kill”. On both counts there are substances in daily use that, per unit of mass, have equal or greater chemical toxicity (arsenic, cyanide, caffeine*) and radiotoxicity (smoke detectors).
*on the reference to caffeine, meep arches his unibrow skeptically, noting the lack of a citation and wondering just how they made this particular connection
Under “Toxicity” at this site:
All isotopes and compounds of plutonium are toxic and radioactive. While plutonium is sometimes described in media reports as “the most toxic substance known to man”, from the standpoint of actual chemical or radiological toxicity this is incorrect. When taken in by mouth, plutonium is less poisonous than if inhaled, since it is not absorbed into the body efficiently when ingested. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the increase in lifetime cancer risk for inhaled plutonium as 3*10^(-8) pCi^(-1) (this means that inhaling 1μCi, or about 2.5μg of reactor-grade plutonium is estimated to increase one’s lifetime risk of developing cancer as a result of the exposure to 3%). When plutonium is absorbed into the body, it is excreted very slowly, with a biological half-life of 200 years.
From a purely chemical standpoint, it is about as poisonous as lead and other heavy metals…
This link leads to a 5MB scanned (but searchable) .pdf of a 1976 bibliography, Biology of the Transuranium Elements. And it’s just that, a 200+ page bibliography that lists many, many journal citations. Putting “plutonium” in the search box returns a very long list of hits.
Finally, Wikipedia is usually a good starting place for technical questions of general interest - the page for Plutonium is here - but as with any site that has limited editorial control and/or overworked/understaffed editorial staff, caveat lector and all that.
Comment by meepmeep09 on 03/13/11 at 04:53 PM