Most Deadly Elements On Earth – In the last 100 years mankind’s technology has exploded, and along with it his understanding of the natural world. In the 20th century alone mankind nearly doubled the number of elements known on the periodictable, many of them completely artificial constructions created in scientific labs.
Today man has the power to create matter that doesn’t exist naturally anywhere else in the universe, and even more than what wondrous technologies and capabilities all of these new concoctions could unlock, we want to know something else entirely: just how fast would different elements in the periodic table take to kill you, and which is the deadliest?!
Polonium, or element 84, is one of the radioactive elements discovered by famous scientists Marie and Pierre Curie, who helped further mankind’s knowledge of radioactivity at the expense of their own lives. Extremely rare, it is nonetheless a naturally occurring element, and can be found in uranium ore and even cigarette smoke.
Science hasn’t found many applications for Polonium, and that’s probably because it’s insanely radioactive- with one gram of polonium emitting as many alpha particles as 5 kilograms of radium. Polonium is so toxic that one gram could kill 10 million people if it was ingested, and thus it is a favorite tool of government assassins.
Most famously, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned by just a tiny trace of polonium poured into his tea after he defected to Britain. Though it took him 23 days to die, this was only because of the minute quantities of polonium he ingested- and even then the assassins, two Russian intelligence agents, had in advertently left a trail of radioactivity throughout London that investigators found terrifyingly easy to track.
The submicroscopic dose of polonium Litvinenko ingested was a death sentence, but also allowed British police to track down the killers with ease. Mankind has known about the dangers of mercury for a while, but it took many painful thousands of years to understand the true danger of this magical metal.
For a long time mercury was used in everything from paint dyes to makeup, and even ingested purpose fully as an elixir of life. China’s Qin Shi Huang famously sent wise men and scholars throughout the known world to search for an elixir by which he could cheat death, but in the end wound up dying to mercury poisoning.
Today we no longer ingest magic tonics made of mercury or use it to paint our faces, but we ingest it nonetheless every single day from the seafood we consume, which is itself polluted by our industries. Mercury poisoning via seafood has become such a serious issue in some parts of the world that young children and pregnant women are warned against eating fish caught in places such as the north sea in Europe.
As a powerful neurotoxin, mercury can cause everything from muscle weakness, lack of coordination, numbness in extremities, memory problems, trouble speaking or seeing, and eventually, death. Typically less than a gram of the stuff is enough to fatally poison someone, and death comes slowly but surely as an individual’s mental faculties slowly break down.
Despite this, doctors throughout the 19th century often prescribed large amounts of mercury to patients suffering from constipation, as its high density helps push waste through the colon quite effectively. While this is definitely not recommended today, the human body typically pushes mercury through the digestive system before absorbing much of it.
This element is most dangerous when inhaled, and because it can be vaporized at room temperature a spill of mercury can lead to mercury atoms in the air you breath in. These atoms pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream and brain. Mankind has known about the dangers of arsenic for hundreds of years, and it has been the poison of choice since the time of knights and kings.
As mankind entered the industrial revolution, arsenic wound up in many paints and wallpapers,leading to individuals being poisoned by this nasty element at home. Today arsenic is used in wood preservatives and some pesticides, but most people are exposed to arsenic from the contamination of groundwater.
Drilling of drinking wells into the ground has led to the puncturing of underground aquifers rich in arsenic, which inevitably leaks out and winds up in other, untainted aquifers. Today an estimated 25 million Americans and 500 million people around the world drink water that is contaminated with arsenic.
Low doses of arsenic can have a cumulative effect and result in nausea, bleeding from orifices, vomiting, and diarrhea. Long term exposure also often results in cancer, and a high enough dose results in a very painful death within hours. Surprisingly, this deadly element actually shows promise in treating certain cancers, and today research is being done using arsenic compounds to directly attack the ability for cancer cells to generate energy and communicate.
Element 87, also known as Francium, is a member of the alkali metal group. These are metals which are extremely reactive, and most people know alkali metals by pure potassium which reacts violently when coming in contact with water. While potassium heats up and can burst into flames when coming in contact with water, Francium is something altogether different, and even just coming in contact with the moisture in your skin would be enough to char your hand to the bone.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Francium is also extremely radioactive. The exact effects of francium on the human body aren’t well understood, mostly for two reasons: number one being that any quantity of francium coming in contact with moisture in the human body would immediately turn you into a human blow torch, and number two being that Francium is the second rarest element in the earth’s crust.
Scientists believe that only as much as 20 to 30 grams of Francium exist at once throughout the entire earth’s crust, and the element has never been viewed in bulk- only in microscopic quantities. The greatest amount of Francium ever produced in a lab was only 300,000 atoms, and no useful application for the element is yet known.
Lead is an element that humanity is well acquainted with, and unfortunately, is so prevalent that it is present in nearly everything you come in contact with. Lead is used in everything from gym weights to jewelry, plumbing, paint, and various construction materials, and most terrifying of all, there is no known safe exposure threshold.
Yes, that means that any amount of lead is dangerous, and yet it is present in nearly everything we touch. Lead is so toxic because it’s known as the imposter metal, entering the body through ingestion and working its way throughout. Lead then fools cells into believing that it is the metals that cells actually need to function, such as iron, calcium, and zinc, and yet lead provides no benefit to the cells, starving and killing them.
Lead is infamous for causing damage to the nervous system, and can directly reduce an individual’s cognitive ability if exposed to high enough quantities. In children lead is especially dangerous and can result in developmental delays, damage to their organs, and even reduced intelligence. In the late 40s and early 50s, geo chemist Clair Cameron Patterson discovered just how horrifyingly prevalent lead had become in the environment thanks to its addition as an anti-knock agent in gasoline fuels.
Patterson was attempting to discover the age of the earth by measuring the lead content of very old rocks and the time it took the uranium inside them to decay into lead, yet his samples continuously became contaminated with lead far too young to be part of the original sample. His discovery of widespread lead contamination led him to discover the source, and after digging up ice core samples from Greenland ice, he realized that lead appeared in heavy concentrations at the same time it was added to automotive fuels.
Patterson was fiercely opposed by the oil industry who hired its own scientists to refute Patterson’s results, and the case wound up before the US Supreme Court, which eventually helped ban lead’s use as an additive in fuels. Incredibly, lead is so dangerous that researchers found a statistically significant correlation between the use of leaded gasoline and the rise and fall of American crime.
After leaded fuels were banned in America, researchers discovered that dropping lead lead levels in blood directly correlated with a 56% decline in violent crime between 1992 and 2002, relating with the 22 years it took for lead to reduce in toxic concentrations from American air- though scientists continue to debate the link, the implication alone is terrifying given lead’s prevalence in our society.
Today though lead is banned in the use of fuels, it can still be found in very high concentrations in the soil next to roads that were heavily used during the pre-ban decades,and ingesting even small quantities of this soil can be toxic. Plutonium is an element most people are familiar with- or at least know the name- thanks to the Cold War.
Produced in vast quantities for decades to be used in nuclear weapons, plutonium is a deadly element that is not just toxic, but will kill you through radiation poisoning long before its toxic effects take hold. Plutonium constantly emits high levels of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, and is so deadly that an estimated 500 grams of plutonium could kill 2 million people if inhaled or ingested.
While not as deadly as polonium, plutonium is far more abundant thanks to its use in thousands of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors. Plutonium also oxidizes in air and can appear like a glowing red ember- which might be cool to see for the few seconds it’ll take for you to die from a lethal radiation dose.
With a half-life of 24,000 years, plutonium is going to be with us for a very, very longtime. Another member of the alkali metals family, Caesium is not as reactive as Francium, but that’s not saying much. In fact, Caesium is so reactive that it can combust even in very thin air, meaning that the only way to safely store any amount of caesium is under vacuum conditions.
Caesium is also very rare in the earth’s crust, which is probably a good thing or we’d behaving to dodge explosions every time it rained. If you were to spill some caesium on your hand, you, your hand, and the air around you would burst into flames. Because it is very similar to potassium, it is also mildly poisonous as the body can mistake it for much-needed potassium.
Also, Caesium happens to be slightly radioactive, leaving element 55 packing a triple-punch of deadly. The periodic table of the elements may as well be renamed to the periodic table of horrible ways to die, given the extreme reactivity, toxicity, and radioactivity of many of the elements on the table.
Luckily most of the more dangerous elements are either man made and don’t exist outside of laboratory conditions, or extremely rare in the earth’s crust. Others though, such as lead, are ubiquitous throughout our society, and have had such a huge impact on our behavior that only now are researchers beginning to realize just how of our past is shaped by our exposure to toxic elements.
What element do you think is the deadliest? Do you agree that violent crime could have been a side effect of mass lead poisoning? Let us know in the comments.