Is Uranium Safe to Eat?

By March 22, 2023 Environment, Health, Science

We came across the following post on a US-based Telegram channel with over 123,000 subscribers:

The post displays a video clip titled ‘Witness the nuclear fear scam. Scientist eats uranium’ in which a man, who appears to be giving a lecture to an audience, eats uranium. He uses a Geiger-Muller counter, a device that measures radioactivity, to indicate to the audience that the substance is radioactive. The uranium is ‘tasteless, odourless, (and) has no texture,’ he says. ‘How is it supposed to hurt me?’

The man says that he has been eating it while on the lecture tour for two years. He relates that when another scientist finds out about his actions and warns him that the uranium would ‘ruin his kidneys’, he responds that ‘they (his kidneys) were fine’.

The man then suggests that the US government was trying to hide the knowledge that uranium was harmless. He suggests that he had been accosted by a ‘federal SWAT team’ and says that depleted uranium (the by-product of enriching uranium before it is used as nuclear fuel in reactors) could be repurposed for weapons (this latter statement is true. Depleted uranium has been used since the 1970s in bullets, mortar shells, tank armour and armour-piercing rounds due to its high density. Its use in weaponry has reemerged as a topic of controversy in the war in Ukraine in what appears to be an instance of Russian propaganda, though there is no significant risk of radiation exposure from depleted uranium weapons).

When we searched for information on the video, we found that the clip was an edited version of a longer video titled ‘Galen Winsor: The Nuclear Scare Scam’ that could be found on the page of the European Institute for Climate and Energy, a Germany-based organisation for climate-sceptic professionals and politicians. Galen Winsor, named in the video description as the speaker, was described as a nuclear chemist.

When we did a search on Galen Winsor, we found credible sources of information to be sparse, perhaps unsurprising given that the video appears to be at least a few decades old. As such, we sought to verify the claims that he had made about uranium in the video.

Toxic Claims

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR), a US federal public health agency, the health effects of natural and depleted uranium are ‘due to chemical effects and not to radiation’.

This is because uranium in its natural and depleted forms only gives off very small amounts of radiation. Furthermore, uranium emits radiation in the form of alpha particles, which have too little energy to penetrate the skin and therefore pose little external risk to people, though they can be harmful if ingested or inhaled in large concentrations.

A toxicological profile for uranium written by ATSDR notes that ‘the health effects associated with… natural or depleted uranium appear to be chemical in nature and not radiological’. In other words, the main hazard of natural or depleted uranium is its toxicity rather than its radioactivity. The profile also notes that the level of toxicity of uranium is affected by its chemical form, with more water-soluble compounds being the ‘most potent systemic toxicants’.

In the video, Winsor says that he had ingested a non-soluble compound of uranium-238 (natural uranium), which, if true, would be the least harmful form of uranium for ingestion. The primary risk associated with ingesting the toxic uranium is that of kidney damage, which can occur much sooner than radiation from the uranium causing cancers of the bone or liver.

During the process of nuclear energy generation, uranium-235 (enriched uranium) atoms split to form other atoms such as caesium-137 and strontium-90. These by-products, also known as high-level radioactive waste, are the primary source of harmful radiation in nuclear energy generation, rather than the uranium itself.

Have Your (Yellow)cake and Eat It

Uranium is a naturally occurring material that is present in the soil, rocks, water and air. This means that uranium particles are regularly present in some items we consume, particularly root vegetables such as potatoes, radishes, turnips and sweet potatoes, as well as in water. Human daily intake of uranium is estimated at 0.9mg to 1.5mg per day.

As this dose is too small to cause major adverse health effects, the risk of uranium exposure is more relevant for uranium mine/mill/fabrication workers, as well as those who live near uranium mining, processing and manufacturing facilities.

While the video clip of Winsor’s lecture contains some factual information, it is highly misleading. The primary health risk of uranium ingestion is toxicity rather than radiation. In addition, whether by intention or ignorance, Winsor and the post author mischaracterise the nature of nuclear energy generation and omit key information, as the main source of harmful radiation is nuclear waste rather than uranium.

As such, we find the suggestion that it is safe to ingest uranium to be mostly false in the context of the video due to its misleading suggestions, though humans regularly ingest miniscule amounts of it.

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