An independent evaluation of plutonium body burdens in populations near Los Alamos Laboratory using human autopsy data

Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2013 Jun;216(3):263-70. doi: 10.1016/j.ijheh.2012.09.002. Epub 2012 Oct 15.


In the mid-1940s, the United States began producing atomic weapon components at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In an attempt to better understand historical exposure to nearby residents, this study evaluates plutonium activity in human tissue relative to residential location and length of time at residence. Data on plutonium activity in the lung, vertebrae, and liver of nearby residents were obtained during autopsies as a part of the Los Alamos Tissue Program. Participant residential histories and the distance from each residence to the primary plutonium processing buildings at LANL were evaluated in the analysis. Summary statistics, including Student t-tests and simple regressions, were calculated. Because the biological half-life of plutonium can vary significantly by organ, data were analyzed separately by tissue type (lung, liver, vertebrae). The ratios of plutonium activity (vertebrae:liver; liver:lung) were also analyzed in order to evaluate the importance of timing of exposure. Tissue data were available for 236 participants who lived in a total of 809 locations, of which 677 were verified postal addresses. Residents of Los Alamos were found to have higher plutonium activities in the lung than non-residents. Further, those who moved to Los Alamos before 1955 had higher lung activities than those who moved there later. These trends were not observed with the liver, vertebrae, or vertebrae:liver and liver:lung ratio data, however, and should be interpreted with caution. Although there are many limitations to this study, including the amount of available data and the analytical methods used to analyze the tissue, the overall results indicate that residence (defined as the year that the individual moved to Los Alamos) may have had a strong correlation to plutonium activity in human tissue. This study is the first to present the results of Los Alamos Autopsy Program in relation to residential status and location in Los Alamos.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy
  • Body Burden
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Laboratories
  • Liver / chemistry*
  • Lung / chemistry*
  • Male
  • New Mexico
  • Plutonium / analysis*
  • Radiation Monitoring
  • Radioactive Pollutants / analysis*
  • Spine / chemistry*


  • Radioactive Pollutants
  • Plutonium