A sig that spread like wildfire
March 30, 2003 9:17 PM   Subscribe

People who do stupid things with hazardous materials often die. If you've been hanging around the net for a while, chances are you've seen this in someone's sig. In fact, it's so frequently quoted that it makes finding Jim Davidson's original post in alt.folklore.urban just a bit difficult to find -- but it's worth looking for! It sits in the middle of an interesting debate about how poisonous plutonium is, spurred on by the rumor(?) that it's one of the "most toxic poison[s] known to man." Deadly poison, Los Alamos Scientists, levitating hemispheres of metal... all it really needs to round it out is true love.
posted by namespan (10 comments total)
Posts like this are why I read Metafilter. Thank you namespan.
posted by tomharpel at 9:38 PM on March 30, 2003

Good post, 'spanner.
A little 'net history, some serious science, a Weapon of Mass Destruction AND the origin of Dave Barry's catchphrase "I am not making this up" (last par).

Remember: People who do stupid things with MetaFilter are alive and well.
posted by wendell at 10:15 PM on March 30, 2003

The rumored story about the subcritical spheres of plutonium is completely off-base, and frankly, full of shit (so, it's par for A.F.U.). The confirmed story (declassified in 1985) can be found at the Dr. Louis Slotin Memorial website.
posted by LimePi at 1:28 AM on March 31, 2003

Thanks, LimePi.
It's good to see that someone else cares for those that give their life for science.
posted by spazzm at 2:34 AM on March 31, 2003

Good post, thanks. I did think about Slotin while reading it.
posted by GriffX at 6:45 AM on March 31, 2003

Article #207 in the thread also starts to give a clearer picture of what really happened with Slotin ... much closer to the great link that LimePi provided.
posted by namespan at 7:36 AM on March 31, 2003

Actually, I'm skeptical that plutonium is as chemically toxic as it's represented in these posts. There are accounts of a Manhatten Project scientist who ingested plutonium which paint a very different picture:
Mastick snapped the slender neck of the vial. It made a small, popping sound in the quiet laboratory. Instantly the material spewed out of the bottle and onto the wall in front of him. Some of the solution ricocheted back into his mouth, flooding his lips and tongue with a metallic taste.

Not overly alarmed, Mastick replaced the vial in its wooden container. Then he trotted across the hard-packed ground of the technical area to knock on the door of Dr. Hempelmann's first-aid station. He had just swallowed a significant amount of the world's supply of plutonium. "I could taste the acid so I knew perfectly well I had a little bit of plutonium in my mouth," he said in an interview in 1995.

...After the accident, Mastick's breath was so hot that he could stand six feet away and blow the needles on the radiation monitors off scale. His urine contained detectable plutonium for many years. In one of several interviews Mastick said that he was undoubtedly still excreting "a few atoms" of plutonium but had suffered no ill effects.

...Hempelmann told Warren that he believed about ten micrograms of plutonium had entered Mastick's mouth. The mouth washings had removed all but one microgram, an infinitesimal but nevertheless hazardous amount. More important, Hempelmann thought the chemist had not inhaled any plutonium. At that time scientists knew that plutonium was extremely hazardous if it was breathed in and deposited in lung tissue. But they also were discovering that the radioactive material was not readily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and that it could not penetrate beyond the outer layer of human skin. Thus, most of the microgram of plutonium in Mastick's mouth undoubtedly would have passed through his digestive system and out of his body without being absorbed.
posted by NortonDC at 3:31 PM on March 31, 2003

Norton, if conditions are correct. an extremely toxic substance can be ingested, yet cause no ill effects. Mercury metal is slowly being banned from consumer products across America, but liquid mercury isn't all that dangerous. Vaporized mercury, however, can be utterly devastating.

If Mastick had, say, an ulcer or a cold sore, I don't think we'd be hearing back from him. The moral: be smart--don't huff mercury or plutonium (paint thinner is my anti-heavy metal).
posted by LimePi at 4:23 PM on March 31, 2003

Your right that variability for these things can be high, but this section from the posts linked in the front page post suggest a level on contact danger that the episode I sighted contradicts:
Whether his struggle with these two highly radioactive chunks of plutonium in such close proximity to each other resulted in excess radiation exposure (seems likely) or whether his struggle resulted in some form of contact that led to a toxic dose of plutonium entering his system is not clear from my notes or recollection. I do recall saying, in an offhand way, words to the effect of "So he died of radiation poisoning," and getting in response an equally offhand, "Plutonium poisoning, actually." I wrote "pluton. poisoning" in my notes.
Not that I'm in any hurry to find out for myself...
posted by NortonDC at 8:21 PM on March 31, 2003

You're. Grr.
posted by NortonDC at 5:27 AM on April 1, 2003

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