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Barium (Ba)
What is barium?
Ba is a metal which exists in ores containing a mixture of elements, often combining with other chemicals to form Ba compounds such as barium sulfate and barium carbonate.
Are there commercial uses for these compounds?
Ba compounds are used to make paint, bricks, ceramics, glass and rubber. Ba compounds are also used by the oil and gas industries as a component in drilling mud, making it easier to drill through rock by keeping the drill bit lubricated.
Barium sulfate is used in medical settings for X-ray studies of the gastrointestinal tract.
Is barium present in the environment?
Ba enters the environment through the weathering of rocks and minerals and through man-made releases. It enters the air during mining, refining, production of Ba compounds and from burning coal. Ba is generally present in air as a result of industrial emissions. The length of time that Ba lasts in the environment depends on the form of Ba released.
Barium chloride, barium nitrate and barium hydroxide dissolve readily in water and usually do not last in these forms for a long time. The resulting Ba combines quickly with sulfate or carbonate that is naturally found in water and becomes the longer-lasting forms. Barium sulfate and barium carbonate, which do not dissolve well in water, can last a long time in the environment. Fish and other fresh water and marine life can accumulate Ba.
Ba has been found in at least 798 of the approximately 1700 National Priority List sites (Superfund hazardous waste sites) identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
How are people exposed to barium?
People are exposed to low levels of Ba through drinking water, food and beverages. Food is the primary source of Ba exposure, but when Ba levels are high in groundwater, drinking water may contribute to Ba intake. The major dietary sources of Ba are milk, potatoes, and flour, with bread being considered the largest source. Some cereal products and nuts may also contain Ba.
People can also be exposed to Ba by breathing contaminated air, by working in a job that involves Ba production or use or by living or working near waste sites containing Ba. People can be exposed to Ba during certain diagnostic medical procedures.
What happens to barium once it enters the body?
In humans, the majority of absorbed Ba leaves the body in the stool or in the urine. Absorbed Ba that does not leave the body is deposited mainly in bone and teeth. It can be transferred to unborn babies through the placenta.
How harmful is exposure to barium?
Exposure to Ba in food and water above background levels for a short period of time may cause vomiting, diarrhea, difficulties in breathing, changes in blood pressure, numbness around the face and muscle weakness. Ba has also been found to cause stomach and intestinal problems and muscular weakness in people. Ingesting large amounts of Ba can cause changes in heart rhythm, paralysis and possibly death.
The health effects of different Ba compounds depend on how well the compound dissolves in water or in stomach contents. Ba compounds that do not dissolve well, such as barium sulfate, are generally not harmful. Soluble Ba compounds can be acutely toxic.
Can exposure to barium cause cancer?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency have determined that Ba is not likely to cause cancer in humans following ingestion.
Is there a medical test to show whether I’ve been exposed to barium?
Ba can be measured in body tissues and fluids, such as bones, blood, urine and feces, but these measurements cannot be used to predict the extent of exposure or potential health effects. These tests are normally done only for cases of severe Ba poisoning and for medical research, with the results being reviewed and interpreted by physicians with a background in toxicology and environmental medicine.
What is the treatment for barium poisoning?
Emergency medical care should be sought in cases of suspected Ba poisoning. Decreased blood potassium levels are commonly seen in acute cases of Ba toxicity. Hemodialysis is sometimes used to decrease levels of Ba in the blood and improve clinical signs.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect public health?
   1) The EPA has set a maximum concentration limit (MCL) of two milligrams per liter (mg/L) or 2000 parts per billion (ppb) of Ba in drinking water.
   2) The World Health Organization has set a limit of 0.7 mg/L (700 ppb) of Ba.
   3) The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) of 0.5 milligrams of soluble Ba compounds 
        per cubic meter of workplace air (0.5 mg/m3) for eight-hour shifts and 40 hour work weeks. The OSHA limits for barium sulfate dust are 15 mg/m3 of 
        total dust and 5 mg/m3 for the respirable fraction of the airborne particulate.
   4) The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs) of 0.5 mg/m3 for soluble Ba
        compounds. The NIOSH has set RELs of 10 mg/m3 (total dust) for barium sulfate and five mg/m3 the respirable fraction of the airborne particulates.

What can I do to prevent exposure to barium?
Food and drinking water are the greatest potential source for human exposure. However, the amount of Ba in foods and drinking water is usually too low to cause health concerns. Distillation or reverse osmosis filtration will remove Ba from drinking water.