Thallium

What is thallium?

Pure thallium is a bluish-white metal that is found in trace amounts in the earth's crust. In the past, thallium was obtained as a by-product from smelting other metals; however, it has not been produced in the United States since 1984. Currently, all the thallium is obtained from imports and from thallium reserves.

In its pure form, thallium is odorless and tasteless. It can also be found combined with other substances such as bromine, chlorine, fluorine, and iodine. When it's combined, it appears colorless-to-white or yellow.

Thallium is used mostly in manufacturing electronic devices, switches, and closures, primarily for the semiconductor industry. It also has limited use in the manufacture of special glass and for certain medical procedures.

What happens to thallium when it enters the environment?

Thallium enters the environment primarily from coal-burning and smelting, in which it is a trace contaminant of the raw materials. It stays in the air, water, and soil for a long time and is not broken down. Some thallium compounds are removed from the atmosphere in rain and snow. It's absorbed by plants and enters the food chain. It builds up in fish and shellfish.

How might I be exposed to thallium?

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  • Eating food contaminated with thallium may be a major source of exposure for most people.
  • Breathing workplace air in industries that use thallium.
  • Smoking cigarettes.
  • Living near hazardous waste sites containing thallium (may result in higher than normal exposures).
  • Touching or, for children, eating soil contaminated with thallium.
  • Breathing low levels in air and water.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/9/2014

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Facts About Thallium Poisoning

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

The March 2007 poisoning of an American woman and her daughter in Russia with the element thalliumsparked widespread media attention. After the women became ill in Moscow, they returned to the U.S. for treatment, where the diagnosis of thallium poisoning was confirmed.

Thallium is a soft, malleable gray metal that was previously widely used in rat poisons and insecticides. Thallium itself and compounds containing the element are highly toxic. It is particularly dangerous because compounds containing thallium are colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Because of this high toxicity, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends against the use of thallium in rodent and insect poisons. However, poisons containing thallium are still in use in some parts of the world.