Thallium is a chemical element found between two very toxic elements: lead and mercury. However, the toxicity of thallium is much greater than that of its neighbors. The discovery of Thallium is relatively recent, as it was only accidentally discovered in 1861 by Sir William Crooks. Thallium, unlike its other members of its group (13), which have +3 charge, has a a preference for a +1 charge. The thallium (I) ion is physically very similar to potassium (K+). Both are the same charge and have almost identical nuclear radii. However, unlike pottassium, thallium (I) has a strong affinity for sulfur. As can be suspected. thallium is often mistaken for potassium and is taken up into the cells by potassium channels. This disrupts the ion gradient found in the heart, nerves and muscle cells. Inside the cell, thallium binds to sulfur found on the amino acid cysteine, and disrupts the function of the proteins. Thus, disrupting cell functions. It also binds to riboflavin. On the visible level, thallium poisoning produces acute abdominal pain, hair loss, leg pains, inability to walk, nerve inflammation, blindness, kidney dysfunction, endocrine disorders, brain inflammation, and shrinking of the testes. In rats, it has shown that it can cross into the placenta and also makes the sperm less motile.
In United States, the most common natural source of thallium is inside the copper, zinc, and lead ores. It is found as a side product among them. Thallium is used in the “manufacture of semiconductors, thermometers, photoelectric cells, optical systems, mining operations, and medical equipment used for radioactive tracing of the heart. As of 2002, 98, 062 pounds of thallium is released into the US soil, water, and air by American industries. The highest contributors to this number comes from copper smelting and petroleum refineries. Other sources include coal combustion, cement manufacturing and the semiconductor industry.
Before 1972, Thallium was commonly used in the US as an effective way of killing rats and various insects. Though thallium may be silver in color, when it is exposed to air, it becomes almost clear. Furthermore, it is tasteless and odorless, and thus very hard to detect. Ever since 1972, the majority of all thallium poisonings were intentional. It is nicknamed the “Poisoner’s Poison,” because it does not discriminate on its victims and is deadly to all.
If one is poisoned with Thallium, they have 72 hours to start treatment or else they risk some permanent neurological damage. If treatment is started 5 days after poisoning, it would take over 9 months to recover the neurological damage. If treatment is started in 2 weeks after the poisoning, it will take at least 2 years to recover, and in some cased even over 30 years. If treatment is started 7 weeks after the poisoning (assuming the person is still alive), they will never recover from all the neurological damage. However, the biggest problem with thallium poisoning is its detection. Most doctors do not expect one to be poisoned with thallium and attribute acute stomach pain to food poisoning or some other disease. By the time it is diagnosed, irreversible damage could have been done already. The fastest way of detecting thallium is through the urine since it appears within an hour of the poisoning. However, even if urine samples are taken, most hospitals do not have the equipment to detect thallium.
One of Saddam Hussein’s favorite murder weapons was thallium. He would give it to his enemies and let them leave the country, where they would die within a month or so if they were not treated. Now Saddam Hussein is dead, however thallium poisoning still occurs. My journal article looked into a case in Baghdad, Iraq where a 10 out of 12 members of two families were poisoned with thallium after eating a contaminated cake in 2008. Both fathers of the two families were members of a local sports club. One day, a baker delivered cake as a present for the club members. However, the two fathers did not share the cake and took it home for their families. Thus the poisoning was intended for the team. The family checked in to a local hospital within a day. However it took them 5 days to identify the thallium present in the 10 members. However, since there are is no thallium treatment in Iraq, they were transferred to Jordan, where they started treatment on day 11. However, 4 of the 10 members ended up dying before the treatment even began. Out of the 6 that underwent treatment, 5 of them had severe damage to their nervous system.
To eliminate thallium from my life for a week, I avoided contact with any fresh cement (my father is a construction worker and works with cement quite often. Second, since there is a Valero oil refinery in Benecia, I avoided all the water found in Vallejo (couldn’t avoid the air). It was not too difficult to do since thallium is not found in such high concentrations as other toxic elements such as arsenic.