Pure thallium is a bluish-white metal that is found in trace amounts in the earth's crust. In the past, thallium was obtained as a by-product from smelting other metals; however, it has not been produced in the United States since 1984. Currently, all the thallium is obtained from imports and from thallium reserves.

In its pure form, thallium is odorless and tasteless. It can also be found combined with other substances such as bromine, chlorine, fluorine, and iodine. When it's combined, it appears colorless-to-white or yellow.

Thallium is used mostly in manufacturing electronic devices, switches, and closures, primarily for the semiconductor industry. It also has limited use in the manufacture of special glass and for certain medical procedures.

Fate & Transport

Thallium enters the environment primarily from coal-burning and smelting, in which it is a trace contaminant of the raw materials.

It stays in the air, water, and soil for a long time and is not broken down.

Some thallium compounds are removed from the atmosphere in rain and snow.

It's absorbed by plants and enters the food chain.

It builds up in fish and shellfish.

Exposure Pathways

Eating food contaminated with thallium may be a major source of exposure for most people

Breathing workplace air in industries that use thallium

Smoking cigarettes

Living near hazardous waste sites containing thallium (may result in higher than normal exposures)

Touching or, for children, eating soil contaminated with thallium

Breathing low levels of thallium in air and water.

Health Effects

Exposure to high levels of thallium can result in harmful health effects. A study on workers exposed on the job over several years reported nervous system effects, such as numbness of fingers and toes, from breathing thallium.

Studies in people who ingested large amounts of thallium over a short time have reported vomiting, diarrhea, temporary hair loss, and effects on the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. It has caused death. It is not known what the effects are from ingesting low levels of thallium over a long time.

Birth defects were not reported in the children of mothers exposed to low levels from eating vegetables and fruits contaminated with thallium. Studies in rats, however, exposed to high levels of thallium, showed adverse developmental effects.

It is not known if breathing or ingesting thallium affects human reproduction. Studies showed that rats that ingested thallium for several weeks had some adverse reproductive effects. Animal data suggest that the male reproductive system may be susceptible to damage by low levels of thallium.

There is no information available on the health effects of skin contact with thallium in people or animals.

The Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have not classified thallium as to its human carcinogenicity. No studies are available in people or animals on the carcinogenic effects of breathing, ingesting, or touching thallium.

There are medical tests available to measure levels of thallium in urine and hair. In addition, thallium can also be measured in blood; however, this is not a good indicator of exposure since thallium only stays in blood a very short time. These tests require special equipment that is not usually available in most doctor's offices. In addition, these tests cannot determine if adverse health effects will occur from the exposure to thallium.

Information excerpted from:

Toxicological Profile for Thallium 1992

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services