According to "The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity" by Bernard L. Cohen:

Plutonium is constantly referred to by the news media as ``the most toxic substance known to man.'' Ralph Nader has said that a pound of plutonium could cause 8 billion cancers, and former Senator Ribicoff has said that a single particle of plutonium inhaled into the lung can cause cancer.

Is plutonium "the most toxic substance known to man"?

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    Can you add one or more sources for this quote, including context?
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 11:14
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    Ralph Nader claims that LD50 of plutonium is 3ng/kg (even though other sources place it at 5µg/kg). Still, even such a ridiculously low LD50 estimate is still 3 times higher than that of botox (1 ng/kg).
    – vartec
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 11:19
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    What isotope of Plutonium?
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 12:16
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    Actually, there is a second claim here: Cohens claim that Plutonium is constantly referred to by the news media as [such]. This claim is equally false as the actual content of the claim.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 12:51
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    @NeilMeyer All 7 billion humans can live in Texas at New York density, and potential deaths are theoretical. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 13:08

1 Answer 1


In "The Nuclear Energy Option, Chapter 13, Plutonium and Bombs" (Plenum Press, 1990, ISBN 0-306-43567-5), Bernard L. Cohen writes:

When plutonium oxide, the form in which plutonium would be used in the nuclear industry and also its most toxic form, is inhaled as a fine dust, 25% of it deposits in the lung, 38% deposits in the upper respiratory tract, and the remainder is exhaled. Within a few hours, all of that deposited in the upper respiratory tract, but only 40% of that deposited in the lung, is cleared out. The other 60% of the latter — (.25 x .60 =) 15% of the total inhaled — remains in the lung for a rather long time, an average of 2 years.


The 2 million fatalities per pound inhaled leaves plutonium dust far from "the most toxic substance known to man." Biological agents, like botulism toxin or anthrax spores are many hundreds or thousands of times more toxic. Plutonium toxicity is similar to that of nerve gas, but given the choice of being in a room with equal quantities of plutonium dust and nerve gas, the latter would be infinitely more dangerous. It rapidly permeates the room air, whereas plutonium, being a solid material, would be largely immobile.


The calculational procedure used here to obtain our result, 2 million deaths per pound inhaled, follows the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). It would be impossible to obtain a very different result without sharply deviating from them; at least three independent investigations have used them to evaluate the toxicity of plutonium and they have all obtained essentially the same result. These ICRP recommendations are used by all groups charged with setting health standards all over the world, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States. They are almost universally used in the scientific literature.


It is 5,000 times more dangerous to inhale plutonium than to eat it, and eating plutonium is about equal in danger to eating the same quantity of caffeine.

He also states that:

There is no direct evidence for plutonium-induced cancer in humans, but there have been a number of experiments on dogs, rabbits, rats, and mice. The results of these are summarized in Fig. 1, where the curve shows the expectation from our calculation. It is evident that the animal data give strong confirmation for the validity of the calculation.

Fig. 1 — Results of animal experiments with inhaled plutonium. The curved line shows the predictions of the calculation outlined in the text.

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    I pity the test subject who had to eat plutonium. Very good Answer!
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 10:12
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    Don Mastick said it tasted metallic. I'm more worried about Albert Stevens who was secretly injected with 131 kBq of plutonium isotopes. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 10:37
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    Should probably be compared to Po-210, which is dangerous by ingestion as well as inhalation, and which kills by acute radiation poisoning because of it 138 day halflife. Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 22:54
  • 'and eating plutonium is about equal in danger to eating the same quantity of caffeine' would be an excellent claim, is it true? Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 2:44
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    You've given us references to the dangers of Plutonium as radioisotope, but the question is about "the most toxic substance", and I suspect that even among radioisotopes plutonium takes a back seat to Polonium-210. There is nothing wrong with the facts in your answer, it just doesn't really address the question which claims that there is nothing more toxic. Commented Oct 30, 2013 at 14:18

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