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Uranium and radioactivity content of the Macondo oil

Preliminary Note

Chris Busby PhD

Green Audit, Aberystwyth
25th August 2010

Uranium analysis

In view of the novel deep geological origin of the oil being drilled for in the Gulf of
Mexico and the concerns about the effects of the accident, it was of interest to
examine the radioactivity content of samples of the oil. Samples of oil the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill were collected from the first oil contamination which came ashore on
the coast of Florida and analysed for radioactivity and total Uranium in the laboratory
of Green Audit and at the Scientifics Ltd Laboratory at Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Uranium was analysed by Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry ICPMS
using an Agilent 7500CE quadrupole instrument. Results for the first sample
examined showed the Uranium concentration to be 0.073mg/kg (mean of 3
determinations, SD 0.008). This is about 500 times the concentration of Uranium in
seawater which is reported to be 0.00015mg/kg (Weast, 1986). The total radioactivity
of the Uranium 238, Pa234m, Th234 and U-234 series will thus be 3.62Bq/kg oil.
Since this oil is from undisturbed deep strata there will also be Radium-226 and
daughters in secular equilibrium at a minimum activity of 0.9Bq/kg.

Gamma radioactivity was examined on three different samples of the oil. Samples
were examined by low resolution gamma counting for 12 hours using a 2” Scionix
NaI(Tl) scintillation crystal in conjunction with a Mini MCA spectrum analyser.
Decay products of the Uranium and Radium series were detected but levels of
Thorium-232 decay series (Ac-228) were not found above the limit of detection. Thus
the samples seemed to show no significant excess gamma radiation (less than
200mBq/l). Tritium (H-3) and Carbon-14 analysis was not carried out but further
work is in progress and results will be reported.

The environmental and health implications

On the basis that the total estimated oil spill quantity is 840 million kilograms
( ) this adds 61kg of
Uranium to the Gulf waters. In view of the recent discoveries of the genotoxicity of
uranium (ECRR2010, this may represent a significant exposure
to marine life which will food-chain concentrate the nuclides. It is recommended that
uranium levels in seafood be monitored.

In addition to the partitioning of Uranium and daughter series isotopes in equilibrium

(Table 1) into the sea water, significant quantities of these radionuclides will have
been produced as atmospheric contaminants in the methane releases and the burnoff.
On the basis of an estimate of the burnoff of 40,000cubic metres of oil this will have
released 3.2kg of aerosolised uranium. Following studies of uranium weapons
aerosols in battlefields it can be predicted that inhalation of aerosolised uranium will
be extremely hazardous since the particle diameters (less than 1 micrometer) enable
the uranium particulates to penetrate the lymphatic system and thereby access the
blood. Inhalation of uranium aerosols can also lead to direct penetration of the brain
through the nasal olfactory connections leading to damage of the midbrain and
brainstem and a spectrum of neurological conditions which follows from this
The genotoxocity of uranium is well known and follows from its high affinity
for DNA phosphate (ECRR2010) and the photoelectron amplification of background
gamma radiation which occurs because of the high atomic number of Uranium (Z=92)
Evolution has therefore developed mechanisms for excluding the element both from
animals and plants through very low transfer coefficients across the gut or across the
plant root membranes (Busby and Schnug 2008). But aerosolised uranium will not
have existed throughout evolution and so no mechanism from preventing direct
penetration though the long and nasal passages has been developed.


Busby Chris and Schnug Ewald (2008) Advanced biochemical and biophysical aspects of
uranium contamination. In: (Eds) De Kok, L.J. and Schnug, E. Loads and Fate of Fertilizer
Derived Uranium. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, The Netherlands, ISBN/EAN 978-90-5782-
Busby C, Yablolov AV, Schmitz Feuerhake I, Bertell R and Scott Cato M (2010) ECRR2010 The
2010 Recommendations of the European Committee on Radiation Risk. The Health Effects of
Ionizing Radiation at Low Doses and Low Dose Rates. Brussels: ECRR; Aberystwyth Green
Audit. Uranium Chapter is a free download from
Weast RC (1986) CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics 1986 p F204 Boca Raton: CRC