That said, there is no doubt that plutonium may be extremely dangerous when handled incorrectly. The alpha radiation it emits does not penetrate the skin, but can irradiate internal organs when plutonium is inhaled or ingested. Particularly at risk are the skeleton, where it is likely to be absorbed by the bone surface, and the liver, where it will likely collect and become concentrated. Approximately 0.008 microcuries absorbed in bone marrow is the maximum withstandable dose. Anything more is considered toxic. Extremely fine particles of plutonium (on the order of micrograms) can cause lung cancer if inhaled.
Other substances including ricin, tetrodotoxin, botulinum toxin, and tetanus toxin are fatal in doses of (sometimes far) under one milligram, and others (the nerve agents, the amanita toxin) are in the range of a few milligrams. As such, plutonium is not unusual in terms of toxicity, even by inhalation. In addition, those substances are fatal in hours to days, whereas plutonium (and other cancer-causing radioactives) give an increased chance of illness decades in the future. Considerably larger amounts may cause acute radiation poisoning and death if ingested or inhaled; however, so far, no human is known to have immediately died because of inhaling or ingesting plutonium and many people have measurable amounts of plutonium in their bodies.
Despite being toxic both chemically and because of its ionizing 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).
There are three principal routes by which plutonium can reach human beings:
* contamination of open wounds,
Ingestion is not a significant hazard, because plutonium passing through the gastro-intestinal tract is poorly absorbed and is expelled from the body before it can do harm.
Contamination of wounds has rarely occurred although thousands of people have worked with plutonium. Their health has been protected by the use of remote handling, protective clothing and extensive health monitoring procedures.
The main threat to humans comes from inhalation. While it is very difficult to create airborne dispersion of a heavy metal like plutonium, certain forms, including the insoluble plutonium oxide, at a particle size less than 10 microns, are a hazard.
If inhaled, much of the material is immediately exhaled or is expelled by mucous flow from the bronchial system into the gastro-intestinal tract, as with any particulate matter. Some however will be trapped and readily transferred, first to the blood or lymph system and later to other parts of the body, notably the liver and bones. It is here that the deposited plutonium’s alpha radiation may eventually cause cancer.
However, the hazard from Pu-239 is similar to that from any other alpha-emitting radionuclides which might be inhaled. It is less hazardous than those which are short-lived and hence more radioactive, such as radon daughters, the decay products of radon gas, which (albeit in low concentrations) are naturally common and widespread in the environment.
In the 1940s some 26 workers at US nuclear weapons facilities became contaminated with plutonium. Intensive health checks of these people have revealed no serious consequence and no fatalities that could be attributed to the exposure. In the 1990s plutonium was injected into and inhaled by some volunteers, without adverse effects.