The Scariest Stuff- Pu and Phosgene
Has anyone else noticed how people behave when they describe plutonium? Invariably, it is described as the most 1) toxic, 2) hazardous, 3) dangerous material on earth. It seems that no matter the context, these adjectives or strings of other adjectives are used in the preamble. (See! I just did it.) It is though plutonium really is thought of as a manifestation of the dark forces thrusting upward from the underworld. Certainly the name and applications infer some malevolent attributes.
I think this curious attitude to a chemical element exists because most people have no other reference point. In reality, plutonium is a dense radioactive metal, grey in color and sensitive to water and oxygen. It is/was produced by the reduction of the cation with metallic calcium. Like a number of other metals you can’t handle it in the open or without protective garb and inert atmosphere.
I have never heard a credible comparison of it’s chemical vs radiological hazards. Is it chemically toxic, or does the radiological insult drive the issue. My guess is that the radioctivity dominates.
Its radioactivity (Pu-239) and chemical reactivity render it useless for much of anything outside of fission-related uses. It’s not even a good paperweight. You wouldn’t want to have a criticality accident on your desk when you spilled coffee on it. Think of the paperwork. Blue flash and heat pulse …
The same curious treatment is afforded phosgene. Any mention of this substance outside of a chemistry journal invariably recalls the early uses in trench warfare. The one time I used it as a post-doc, the purchase order for one mole of phosgene in toluene came back to me in the perspiring hand of the Dean of the College. He called me to his office and wanted to know precisely what kind of harm was I inviting to the University. Literally, he wondered what the neighbors would think.
This university was in a wealthy and exclusive neighborhood of a large city in Tejas. What would the neighboring plutocrats think of having research done with a WW-I war gas in their neighborhood? What if *gulp* there was a release? That’s a fair question.
I was requested and required to write a letter describing the proper emergency response to a spill and what procedures I would put in place to prevent a mishap. This was not a memo of understanding, but rather it was CYA for the Dean in the case of an accident. He could wave the letter around in the inevitable investigation afterwards. He would hand it to my one remaining arm so I could read it publically from my hospital bed for maximum effect.
Oh yes, at near-threshold levels, phosgene has a fragrance very similar to lilac.