Will you die if you rub Uranium 235 gently on your skin for 5 seconds?

Mudassir Ali
Feb 06, 2020 03:42 PM 0 Answers
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Mudassir Ali
- Feb 06, 2020 03:43 PM

Yes, eventually, but not because of the Uranium.

First, let’s be clear with what we are talking about. For the purposes of this answer, I am assuming you mean a small piece of clean, solid U-235 metal.

U-235 has a half-life of over 700 million years, which means the amount of radioactive decay it undergoes at any moment is small. Further, it’s an alpha emitter, and alpha particles cannot penetrate even the outer layer of dead skin cells.

So, rubbing a small piece of U-235 metal gently on your skin for a few seconds is unlikely to do any sort of harm at all, provided it hasn’t been crafted into a scalpel.

That said, don’t lick it, wear a respirator, and wash your hands immediately after and with more than ordinary vigor.

Given enough time, the alpha radiation will chemically degrade the outer surface of the skin and begin to damage (burn) the underlying living tissue. If this is allowed to continue, or if the metal or its daughter products are ingested or inhaled so that it’s surrounded by living tissue, the result with be continued cell damage, death, and eventually a likelihood of cancer.

Over time, U-235 breaks down into radioactive isotopes of actinium, astatine, bismuth, francium, lead, polonium, protactinium, radium, radon, thallium, and thorium, before finally breaking down into lead-207, which is stable. All these isotopes are present, at least transiently, in any sample of uranium-235, and that will affect their fates if ingested. For example, uranium itself tends to be excreted, and what remains settles in the bones and liver, but other daughter products have different solubility and chemistry, and can have different effects. For example, radon atoms will pass through the body almost like a noble gas—but if they happen to decay into polonium while inside, that will bind in place and continue to decay, greatly increasing cancer risk.

All things considered, I would wear gloves.

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