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Plutonium has a half-life of about 24,000 years. And scientists have known for decades that even in small doses, it is highly toxic, leading to radiation illness, cancer and often to death. After the March nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, people the world over worried that plutonium poisoning might affect those near the compromised plant—and beyond.

Inhaled plutonium can land in the lungs, where it can lead to cancer, but it—and any that is ingested—can also find its way into the blood stream where it is slowly absorbed into the body.

New details about this toxic process are now emerging. "Plutonium is a toxic synthetic element with no natural biological functions," Mark Jensen, of the Argonne National Laboratory, and his colleagues wrote in a new paper, published online June 26 in Nature Chemical Biology (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group). Not only is it useless to the body, "it is strongly retained by humans when ingested," primarily lodging in bone and liver cells, where it can release harmful alpha radiation.

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Category: Science