Thallium: Uses, Facts & Properties

Instructor: Marauo Davis

Marauo has taught both chemistry and mathematics in the high school and college setting and has a Ph.D. degree in chemistry.

Have you ever heard of thallium before? If you're like most people without a science background, you've probably never heard of this element. And if you have heard of it, you likely associate it with being a poison. Read on to discover some interesting uses, facts, and properties of this element.

What is Thallium?

Thallium is element 81 on the periodic table. It has the chemical abbreviation Tl and is a soft, grayish metal that resembles tin. Thallium isn't found freely in nature, and it has kind of a bad reputation as a toxic element. In fact, it's often referred to as 'the poisoner's poison' because it's often difficult to trace in the body and is often discovered too late to save someone who's been poisoned with it. Historically, thallium has been used in rat poison and insecticides.

Some other uses of thallium include its application in electronics and optics. For example, approximately, 60% of all thallium is used in electronic applications. It's used in semiconductors and infrared instruments. In terms of optics, thallium is often used in very small amounts to produce glass. It is also found in cigarette smoke and is sometimes used in fireworks, pigments and even jewelry.

For a highly toxic element, thallium sure is very present in our daily lives! So, if we are surrounded by thallium, why are people not just dropping dead when we step outside or touch a piece of glass? Well, it is simply because thallium is only used in small amounts in these applications. Even though it's estimated that approximately 1,000 tons of thallium is released into the environment each year, human beings actually ingest an amount of 2 parts per billion (ppb) amount of thallium each day. How much is ppb? Well think of it this way -- if you were to place one drop of ink into a large gasoline tanker, there would be equal to 1 ppb. This is the reason why 2 ppb that we ingest daily does not affect us.

Thallium pieces
Thallium

Facts about Thallium

Although thallium has a lot of uses, as discussed above, one of the most important things to remember about this element is its toxicity. Let's say you are exposed to high levels of thallium -- how will you know? What treatments are available? Will you die right away? These are some of the questions that might come to mind when thinking about the hazardous nature of the element.

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