Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used in nuclear research, energy generation, and weapons manufacturing. While it occurs naturally on earth and in space, it is extremely rare. Since its discovery in 1934 by Ernest Rutherford, many eminent scientists have contributed to discovering its characteristics.
Later on, it was Luis Alvarez and Robert Cornog who discovered its radioactivity. Since then, tritium, particularly its beta rays, has become one of the most common isotopes produced for nuclear research and industry. However, several studies have emerged exposing its dangers to public health and the environment; one of which is its relation to cancer.
Tritium and Cancer
New studies were launched to identify the estimated cancer risk from tritium exposure following tritium leakage from several nuclear sites across the US. Animal testing has shown that tritium exposure can cause mutations, which may lead to cancer.
While tritium doesn’t stay long in the atmosphere, its emissions increase a person’s cancer risks, as evidenced by a study conducted in Canada. An in vivo experimentation also reveals the occurrence of breast tumors in female rats following exposure to tritium beta rays and tritiated water with concentrations ranging from 45 to 370 Mbq/100 g.
Revised Standards and Regulations
Originally, tritium was not considered a threat to human health, given its short biological half-life and low energy radiation. However, after finding high concentrations of tritium in groundwater in areas near nuclear power plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have revised the policy surrounding its production and handling.
The Savannah River Site in North Carolina is the only nuclear facility to irradiate tritium from its nuclear reactors. Modernization projects were launched in 2006 following tighter regulations and increasing pressure from local and national regulatory bodies, organizations, and local communities. Additionally, the government has since extended medical aid to those who have worked in the tritium facilities from the 1950s to the 70s.
It is undeniable that tritium has many applications in research and daily life, from generating electricity to studying the hydrologic cycle. But, the risks are high. Leakage and runoff can cause irreparable damage to the surrounding environment. And while tritium doesn’t stay too long in the human body, it can still cause mutations, making it a threat to life.