Elemental bio-imaging of thorium, uranium, and plutonium in tissues from occupationally exposed former nuclear workers

Dominic Hare, Sergei Tolmachev, Anthony James, David Bishop, Christine Austin, Fred Fryer, Philip Doble

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44 Scopus citations


Internal exposure from naturally occurring radionuclides (including the inhaled long-lived actinides 232Th and 238U) is a component of the ubiquitous background radiation dose (National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Ionizing radiation exposure of the population of the United States; NCRP Report No. 160; NCRP: Bethesda, MD, 2009). It is of interest to compare the concentration distribution of these natural ?-emitters in the lungs and respiratory lymph nodes with those resulting from occupational exposure, including exposure to anthropogenic plutonium and depleted and enriched uranium. This study examines the application of laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICPMS) to quantifying and visualizing the mass distribution of uranium and thorium isotopes from both occupational and natural background exposure in human respiratory tissues and, for the first time, extends this application to the direct imaging of plutonium isotopes. Sections of lymphatic and lung tissues taken from deceased former nuclear workers with a known history of occupational exposure to specific actinide elements (uranium, plutonium, or americium) were analyzed by LA-ICPMS. Using a previously developed LA-ICPMS protocol for elemental bio-imaging of trace elements in human tissue and a new software tool, we generated images of thorium (232Th), uranium (235U and 238U), and plutonium (239Pu and 240Pu) mass distributions in sections of tissue. We used a laboratory-produced matrix-matched standard to quantify the 232Th, 235U, and 238U concentrations. The plutonium isotopes 239Pu and 240Pu were detected by LA-ICPMS in 65 ?m diameter localized regions of both a paratracheal lymph node and a sample of lung tissue from a person who was occupationally exposed to refractory plutonium (plutonium dioxide). The average (overall) 239Pu concentration in the lymph node was 39.2 ng/g, measured by high purity germanium (HPGe) ?-spectrometry (Lynch, T. P.; Tolmachev, S. Y.; James, A. C. Radiat. Prot. Dosim. 2009, 134, 94?101). Localized mass concentrations of thorium (232Th) and uranium (238U) in lymph node tissue from a person not occupationally exposed to these elements (chronic natural background inhalation exposure) ranged up to 400 and 375 ng/g, respectively. In lung samples of occupationally nonexposed to thorium and uranium workers, 232Th and 238U concentrations ranged up to 200 and 170 ng/g, respectively. In a person occupationally exposed to air-oxidized uranium metal (Adley, F. E.; Gill, W. E.; Scott, R. H. Study of atmospheric contaminiation in the melt plant buiding. HW-23352(Rev.); United States Atomic Energy Commission: Oakridge, TN, 1952, p 1?97), the maximum 235U and 238U isotopic mass concentrations in a lymph node, measured at higher resolution (with a 30 ?m laser spot diameter), were 70 and 8500 ng/g, respectively. The ratio of these simultaneously measured mass concentrations signifies natural uranium. The current technique was not sufficiently sensitive, even with a 65 ?m laser spot diameter, to detect 241Am (at an overall tissue concentration of 0.024 ng/g, i.e., 3 Bq/g).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3176-3182
Number of pages7
JournalAnalytical Chemistry
Issue number8
StatePublished - 15 Apr 2010
Externally publishedYes


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