Comments: That'll shock 'em

Since depleted uranium isn't remotely significantly radioactive (in short, that's what the "depleted" means -- slightly longer version is that it's what left when you remove most of the tiny amount of the dangerous U235 from the U238 -- it's less radioactive than the harmless uranium you can find in the ground), that wouldn't make much sense.

Depleted uranium is toxic inside the human body because it's chemically toxic, like lead, not because it's radioactive. Short version (you don't want the long version, in all likelihood).

Quick cite: the Federation of American Scientists is, as you presumably know, a left-wing, governmentally-skeptical, organization.

Generally speaking, if a news item is talking about radiation, run it past a scientific source if you have any questions. And anything that talks about "uranium" without specifying an isotope and a purity level and a rem count is almost certainly crap.

Depleted uranium only emits alpha particles. (Which are harmless; sunlight is more dangerous; alpha particles won't even pentrate human skin.)

On depleted uranium, the US and UK governments are actually taking a sound position as regards radiation danger, although the question of chemical toxicity exposure is something of a different question. But you're not going to get a significant amount of depleted uranium floating through the air from the Middle East to Britain, any more, again, than you'd have to worry about getting lead poisoning that way. It's, uh, nuts. More reasonable to worry about ghosts and goblins.

On the other hand, if you have uranium dust in heavy concentrations in your air, you don't want to breath it in, again, any more than you'd want to breath in similar lead concentrations, or mercury concentrations. Because it's chemically toxic. Not because it's "radioactive."

And then if we wanted to start discussing what levels of concentration are toxic, it starts to get a bit complicated.

But people go nuts when they hear something is "radioactive," without realizing that I'm radioactive, you're radioactive, your keyboard is radioactive, trees are radioactive, rocks are radioactive, everything is radioactive. It's specifics that matter. What kind of particles? What's the emission rate? Etc.

It would be nice if most people had a basic set of clues about basic science, but I have an active fantasy life. Most people couldn't explain a grade school concept like what the difference is between a beta particle and a gamma ray and a radiowave if radio waves were passing through their body at the moment they were asked. Or explain what the electromagnetic spectrum is. Etc. But, then, I'm not sure how many people could say what Newton's Three Laws of Motion are, either.

Posted by Gary Farber at February 20, 2006 10:10 PM

Generally speaking, if a news item is talking about radiation, run it past a scientific source if you have any questions.

I don't know any radiation scientists. :)

It would be nice if most people had a basic set of clues about basic science, but I have an active fantasy life.

I'm better at non-nuclear physics. (Not that I'm claiming any extraordinary knowledge.) And I know a bit of biology. And some geology. And a tiny bit about anthropology.

Chemistry, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, and a lot of other fields of science are closed books to me.

Anything nuclear just leaves me blinking. We can't all be rocket scientists.

Posted by Anne at February 21, 2006 10:26 PM

"We can't all be rocket scientists."

I don't even have a full year of college, myself.

Posted by Gary Farber at February 22, 2006 08:20 PM