THE DREADED PLUTONIUM – “The most toxic substance known to man!” Except it isn’t.
In one sense, Plutonium is cause for concern in that it can be used to build atomic bombs, but for some years it has been intoned that Plutonium is “the most toxic substance known to man”. Even the otherwise superb ‘Merck Index’ was compromised by the nonsense. It states, “The lethal dose may be as low as 1 nanogram” (about 2 trillionths of a pound). Toxicity at that level would make it more dangerous as a toxin than as a bomb.
It never really made any sense that Plutonium could be so toxic. If it were so toxic, scores of people would have died during the Manhattan Project. Since Plutonium has such a long half life, it emits relatively little radiation. As a heavy metal, one might expect it to have toxicity comparable to something like lead – which isn’t really very toxic to begin with.
Eventually, in 1997, two studies were actually undertaken to determine the toxicity. It turns out PLUTONIUM IS LESS TOXIC THAN CAFFEINE. In one study they injected Plutonium Citrate directly into the blood stream. In the other study they swallowed Plutonium. In no event did anyone get sick. The disinformation campaign that intones about the toxic dangers of Plutonium got away with it, because no one had ever actually tested the toxicity of Plutonium – and it made good press. The truth is, we don’t have The Evening News in the US. We have Entertainment News. It’s all about ratings.
One fun thing about Plutonium, when you hold a lump of it in your hand it feels oddly warm. This is because it is emitting alpha particles (just helium nuclei). The alpha particles don’t have enough energy to penetrate the layer of dead skin on the surface of your hand, so they are harmless.
If you swallow Plutonium it passes quickly through your digestive tract. The radiation level is so low, it does no harm. The type of radiation emitted by Plutonium cannot penetrate past the superficial cells lining your digestive tract and those cells are rapidly slufed off anyways. Just don’t breathe the dust if you can avoid it.
As usual, the news media has never reported the toxicity studies. We all know why. I only noticed the studies in a letter to the editor of a chemical journal I receive. The author of one of the studies was responding to the usual disinformation about Plutonium in a previous issue of the journal.
If you want to look it up, one of the study’s authors has the memorable name, T. D. Lucky.
So it turns out that the old civil defense movies were right. If you need to, you can eat food contaminated with fallout after two weeks. Just wash it as best you can before you eat it. Any radioactive fallout you ingest will pass through your digestive tract and you will survive.
We really need some sanity regarding the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository in Nevada. The idea of burying “high level” radioactive waste in a mountainside is like burying gold back in a mountain – it’s totally insane! They should store it there, but not seal it in. Our grandchildren are going to want that material. It will be incredibly valuable. Why should they have to dig it out after the mountain is detonated? The power of ignorance is a wonder to behold.
In the early 20th century the spas of Europe used to boast about how radioactive their waters were. They were actually quite right to do so. At that time, there were elixirs sold in the us that contained elements like radium. They were the Viagra of their day. Radium and some other radioactive elements stimulate your pituitary gland and increase your vitality. Unfortunately they overdid it and some people developed osteoporosis. The scandal that ensued led to the establishment of the FDA.
We are all continually bathed in significant levels of radiation. It is called background radiation and it is totally natural. Small doses of radiation and toxins are apparently quite good for us as they stimulate our immune system. This is the basis for the theory of Hormesis.
Without background radiation, evolution would be slower and Man would not exist.
The only really dangerous aspect of Plutonium is that it can be made into an atomic bomb. Fortunately Plutonium atomic bombs are more difficult to make than the terrorists probably realize. Hopefully they won’t be up to the task. The “dirty bomb” use of Plutonium is not really much cause for concern. It would simply be a mess to clean up. There would be far more people injured in the panic than by the actual bomb.
To make a truly “dirty bomb” you have to use radioactive cobalt – a gamma ray emitter. They really are nasty and much more difficult to clean up after. Fortunately it is very hard for terrorists to get their hands on much radioactive cobalt and it is difficult to make in any kind of volume. If you ever read the silly doomsday book, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, you might live in fear that we would all die from cobalt bombs. Relax. It’s not going to happen.
Fergus S. Smith