Medical Definition of Thallium poisoning

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Reviewed on 12/11/2018

Thallium poisoning: Poisoning with the element thallium which enters the environment primarily from coal-burning and smelting. It stays in the air, water, and soil for a long time and is not broken down. It builds up in fish and shellfish. The major source of exposure to thallium for most people is eating food contaminated with thallium. Other sources of exposure include breathing workplace air in industries that use thallium, smoking cigarettes, living near hazardous waste sites containing thallium, and touching (or, for children, eating) soil contaminated with thallium.

Exposure to high levels of thallium can result in harmful health effects. Studies in people who ingested large amounts of thallium over a short time have reported vomiting, diarrhea, temporary hair loss, and effects on the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. It has caused death. A study on workers exposed on the job over several years reported nervous system effects, such as numbness of fingers and toes, from breathing thallium. It is not known what the effects are from ingesting low levels of thallium over a long time.

The word "thallium" is a Latinized version of the Greek "thallos" meaning "green stalk" because of a characteristic bright green line in the spectrum of the element.

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Reviewed on 12/11/2018