Radioactive Times: LLRC Journal

"Silly season" media fall into one sided Plutonium research trap

Report from Radioactive Times Volume 3, Number 2, October 1999 (content updated only in light of the death of Dr Voice in 2004 - this account from the Daily Record reported that he had to be buried in a lead lined coffin.)

The fantasy

Under the headline "PLUTONIUM HARMLESS, SAY SCIENTISTS WHO INHALED IT" on 9th August 1999 the Guardian newspaper reported that Dr Eric Voice, a 73 year old retired Dounreay scientist, and an unnamed colleague in his 60s, had been well in the 18 months since they inhaled plutonium to mimic the effects of a nuclear war.

Dr Voice was reported to have said "There will in the future be a nuclear war or an accident and we need to know how it will affect us." Ignorance of how plutonium affected metabolism was a gap that medical science needed to fill, he claimed, adding that the experiment showed fears that Plutonium is a danger to mankind to be "unfounded".

In addition to the inhalation experiment Dr Voice was also one of 12 volunteers aged 26 to 67 who were injected with plutonium between 1992 and 1998.

The Guardian reported that the experiment (whose results are not due for publication until next year - 2000) "contradicted claims that plutonium lodged in bone and the testes."

The story was widely reported. Dr Voice told Radioactive Times that it had generated more than 40 newspaper items, although he himself had not seen any of them, he said.

The facts

Intrigued, LLRC contacted the European Commission and the UK Health and Safety Executive (both named as part funders of the experiment) to ask what form of the Plutonium had been administered, the dose, how the subjects were being monitored, how it was possible to tell that the isotope was not lodging in bone and testes, and how it was possible to distinguish the newly absorbed plutonium from the existing body burden of a man who had worked for years at Dounreay.

Replies to all these questions were quickly received. The dose was 100 microsieverts, and the isotopes were Plutonium-237 and plutonium-244. HSE said these isotopes were not associated with the work at Dounreay, so there would be no pre-existing body burden for Dr Voice. "Furthermore, since plutonium-237 has a short half-life (45 days) even if Dr Voice had taken some in during work, it would have decayed away before the experiments." Sensitive detectors placed close to the subjects were used to detect photons emitted by the plutonium-237. This measured how much plutonium was retained and where it was distributed in the body.

HSE said it was wrong to claim that the experiment showed Plutonium does not lodge in bone and testes. They also contradicted the "harmless" claim: "While the design of the research is such that it entails very little risk to the volunteers," said HSE, "this should not be taken to imply that plutonium can be considered harmless."

In the injection experiments the plutonium was in the form of the citrate, while Dr Voice and his colleague had inhaled it in the form of the nitrate. This is the most interesting aspect, since both Plutonium citrate and Plutonium nitrate are soluble and are not metabolised in the same way as insoluble particles.

The environment is contaminated with particles of Plutonium from nuclear reactors, weapons testing, current and historical bomb-making, and reprocessing. They are persistent and environmentally mobile. When inhaled they pass through the lung wall, are scavenged to the lymph nodes where they are retained, since they are soluble only in hydrofluoric acid and since they are hot enough to kill the white blood cells that engulf them. Nuclear workers and members of the public in Cumbria and the USA have been measured (post mortem); their lymph nodes contained Plutonium concentrations hundreds of times higher than the concentrations in any of their other tissues. Recent investigation by Dr Chris Busby has revealed that NRPB's calculations of doses from Plutonium in the lymph system, despite having been cited by COMARE, are inadequate and have not even been internally reviewed at NRPB. (see article in this RaT)

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