Plutonium is a transuranic radioactive chemical element with symbol Pu and atomic number 94. It is an actinide metal that is silvery-grey in appearance that tarnishes when exposed to air. It is also the heaviest element to occur in nature. Plutonium reacts with carbon, halogens, nitrogen, silicon and hydrogen. It is radioactive and can accumulate in the bones, making the handling of plutonium dangerous. The plutonium isotope 238Pu has a half-life of 88 years and emits alpha particles. Only trace amounts of plutonium occur naturally, with most of this being released during atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which ended in 1980.
Plutonium is a key component in modern nuclear weapons and care must be taken to ensure stocks of plutonium do not reach critical mass (the amount of plutonium which will self-generate a nuclear reaction). Even though it is not confined by external pressure as required for a nuclear weapon, it will nevertheless heat itself and break whatever confining environment it is in. It is also important to take note of the shape of the plutonium as compact shapes such as spheres should be avoided. Plutonium can also be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, such as atomic bombs, nuclear power generation to produce electricity as well as being used as a portable energy supply in space probes and vehicles.
The routes of exposure for plutonium include; inhalation, ingestion and skin and eye contact.
Inhalation of dust for prolonged periods may produce respiratory discomfort and distress. When inhaled, plutonium is retained in the lungs with an effective half-life that varies from tens of days to hundreds. The particle size matters and dictates how quickly the chemical is eliminated from the respiratory tract. Of the plutonium inhaled, 10% is excreted in the urine, while the remaining 90% is distributed in the body. About 50% accumulates in the bones and about 30% in the liver. Damage may be irreversible. Those with already compromised respiratory function (conditions such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis), may suffer further disability upon inhalation. Additionally, people with prior damage to their kidneys, circulatory or nervous systems should be screened prior to handling to reduce the risk of further damage caused by the chemical.
Ingestion of plutonium may be very damaging to the health of the individual, with plutonium compounds being very acutely toxic. High iron or calcium concentrations reduce plutonium absorption.
Plutonium is not thought to be a skin irritant, however the health of the individual may be damaged following absorption through skin contact. For this reason, open cuts and wounds should not be exposed to the material as they may lead to more severe effects following entry into the bloodstream. Symptoms of whole body radiation doses may cause; anorexia, apathy, nausea and vomiting.
Repeated or prolonged eye contact may cause inflammation, temporary vision impairment and other forms of eye damage. A single exposure may be benign for 6 months to several years.
Plutonium is regarded as carcinogenic to humans and there is sufficient data to establish the links between human exposure and the development of cancer.
If inhaled, seek medical attention immediately. Remove the patient from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source as quickly as possible. Immediately remove all clothing, footwear and accessories and begin decontamination procedures. Package the patient using transportation bags, plastic or blankets to minimise contamination during transport. PPE should be worn by the rescuers to ensure their own safety.
If swallowed, seek medical attention immediately. The mouth should be rinsed out immediately after the accident, making sure none of this contaminated water is swallowed. Vomiting should be induced either mechanically, or with Ipecac syrup (never induce vomiting on an unconscious person). The patient must be monitored for radioactivity and decontaminated (prior to being transported to the hospital, if possible). Anyone involved in performing first aid to the patient should be monitored for radioactivity and decontaminated if necessary.
If skin exposure occurs, the skin should be decontaminated as quickly as possible. Gently brush away dry particles or blow the excess liquids with absorbent materials. Wash the patient with mild liquid soap and large quantities of warm water, taking care to not be overly-aggressive on the skin as this may injure the skin’s natural barriers. The water used to wash the patient as well as their contaminated clothing must be stored in metal containers for later decontamination/disposal. Monitor the patient for symptoms of radioactivity. Anyone involved in performing first aid to the patient should be monitored for radioactivity and decontaminated if necessary.
In the event of eye exposure, seek medical attention immediately. Remove the patient from the restricted area for decontamination and flush the eyes out large amounts of fresh running water (do not use eye baths) for at least 15 minutes, remembering to wash under the eyelids. Following the water treatment, provide an isotonic solution. Any water used to wash the patient’s eyes must be stored in a metal container for later disposal. Anyone involved in performing first aid to the patient should be monitored for radioactivity and decontaminated if necessary.
Emergency eyewash fountains and safety showers should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and adequate ventilation should be available (install local exhaust if necessary).
The PPE recommended when handling plutonium includes; safety glasses, gloves (with a thickness >0.35mm), smocks, lab coats, coveralls/long sleeved shirts and pants, shoe covers and boots.
Refer to your SDS for more comprehensive information on the safe handling of plutonium.