after the planet Pluto. Any nuclear fission fueled by uranium will create plutonium as a by-product.Many plutonium isotopes emit alpha rays, which cause massive genetic damage. Plutonium haslittle effect when it is outside the body, the element's radiation stopping 0.04 millimeters into theskin and exerting no internal effects. Once it is inside the body, however, it wreaks havoc on cellsand the genes within far worse than that from radioactive cesium. Yet, it is unlikely to be absorbedwhen traversing the digestive system, which expels the element. It will stay inside the body for along time if it enters through the lungs, however, damaging genes and eventually causing cancer.The various plutonium isotopes are categorized by their life span, according to which plutonium-238 through plutonium-244 are considered the most problematic. The half-life -- or thetime it takes for their radioactivity to decrease by half -- is long: 87.7 years for plutonium-238,24,100 years for plutonium-239, and 6,570 years for plutonium-240.According to guidelines for acceptable radiation levels in food products that the Ministry of Health,Labor and Welfare (MHLW) issued to municipal governments on March 17, the maximum permissible amount of plutonium in food was 1 becquerel per kilogram of water, milk and other dairy products, and 10 becquerels per kilogram of vegetables, grains, meats, eggs, fish and other foods. The maximum permissible amount of radioactive cesium was 200 becquerels and 500 becquerels respectively, which attests to the high toxicity of plutonium. As for inhaled plutonium,the government has not set any standards.
A government map displaying radiation levels in 10 prefectures relatively close to the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Areas in red show over 3 million becquerels of cesium per squaremeter, whereas those in light brown show less than 10,000. (Data as of Sept. 18. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)Are plutonium levels that have been detected since the nuclear crisis began really not a major causefor concern? Hiroshi Ishihara, who heads the Medical Treatment for the High Dose ExposureResearch Group at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) in Chiba, puts itsuccinctly: "The plutonium levels we're seeing are several orders of magnitude lower than levelsthat would constitute a health hazard."Ishihara explains that the total of 15 becquerels of plutonium-239 and plutonium-240 that werefound in Minamisoma, is around the same levels that have been released in past nuclear experiments, and cannot necessarily be attributed to the Fukushima disaster. Meanwhile, Ishiharasays the 4 becquerels of plutonium-238 that were found in Namie come from the ongoing crisis, butas Furukawa also says, it's unlikely to have any health impact.Ishihara also agrees with Furukawa on the point that inhaling plutonium is dangerous, as once it'sinside the lungs it finds its way into the liver, and is eventually deposited in the bones. Themetabolic half-life -- the time it takes for an organ to eliminate half of a substance introduced into it-- of plutonium in the lungs is unknown, and for the liver and bones is 20 and 50 years, respectively.