Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Plutonium, Sludge

Question: Who issued this report and what is it about?
The Environmental Health Investigations Branch (EHIB) of the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) issued a report entitled, "Proposed Process to Address the Historic Distribution of Sewage Sludge Containing Plutonium Releases from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory".

Q: What happened with a plutonium release?
The Lab believes the plutonium in sludge was primarily due to an inadvertent release from a Lab decontamination and disposal facility into the sewer in 1967. (The total from the prior three years showed gross alpha activity comparable to the 1967 release. Note: All were below regulatory limits.) From there it went to the Livermore Water Reclamation Plant. The Lab discovered the release and reported it to the City of Livermore, California Department of Public Health (CDHS by an earlier name), and U.S. Atomic Energy Agency (USAEC). A vigorous sampling program at the sewage treatment plant was implemented to better define the potential hazards, and the results were reported to the City, CDHS, and USAEC. It was determined and agreed there was no regulatory or scientific basis for health concern.

In 1967, the state CDHS reviewed the potential for health impacts from the releases by the Laboratory. Subsequent sampling and analysis by the Laboratory as well as detailed studies found no suggestion of health impacts nor levels of plutonium that would cause health impacts. All of this was in public media, both at the time and through the present day. All reports are available to the public.

In the1960s and 1970s, the public was allowed to use the sewer sludge as a soil amendment for their yards. Sampling in 1998 demonstrated some of that sludge was used as a soil amendment at Big Trees Park.

Overall, there have been more than 30 years of sampling, analysis, study and determinations of no health impacts by state and federal regulatory agencies. Ongoing Laboratory monitoring studies continue to demonstrate the absence of any significant risk.

Q: So what is this latest CDHS report about?
The data in this latest CDHS report is the same data that the responsible federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, used to determine in 2000 on the 1998 sampling in Big Trees Park that there were no public health impacts. In the ATSDR’s draft appendix to the draft CDHS report and in this final CDHS report, ATSDR concludes that historic plutonium concentrations in sludge from the LWRP were below levels of public health concern. We now understand that ATSDR will soon be issuing a health assessment validating their original findings.

Q: What is plutonium?
Plutonium is a manmade radioactive element. The Lab has used plutonium for its nuclear research and other scientific purposes. There are 15 radioactive isotopes of plutonium, with half lives ranging from less than a second to thousands of years.

Plutonium 239 (Pu-239) is the primary isotope handled at the Lab. It has a physical half life of 24,400 years — meaning the time it takes for half of it to decay — and a biological half life of about 50 years, or the time it takes to eliminate half of it from your body.
Plutonium can pose a considerable health hazard if a significant quantity is taken into the body. Ingestion is less hazardous than inhalation because very little plutonium is absorbed when it passes through the gastrointestinal tract. 

Plutonium can be found in very small amounts throughout the environment, mostly from past atmospheric nuclear weapons tests at various locations throughout the world.

Q: Is there an agency where I can get additional information on this?
We suggest that you call John Florence, ATSDR, at (404) 498-0070 or for technical questions that you call Paul Charp, ATSDR, at (404) 498-0365.

Environmental Community Relations has ATSDR reports on LLNL and LLNL reports are available at Offsite Environmental Studies (Livermore Site) or contact Public Affairs at (925) 422-4599.

Back to LLNL Response to CDHS Report

To learn more about LLNL's Environmental Community Relations Program, see Environmental Community Relations.

To see previous off-site environmental studies, see one of the following links:
Livermore Big Trees Park: 1998 Results (pdf document)
ATSDR Health Consultation Big Trees Park 1998 Sampling 
Neighbor Letter about the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) study
ATSDR Big Trees Park Pathway Study (pdf document)
1998 Big Trees Park Sampling Plan (pdf document)
Livermore Big Trees Park: 1998 Summary Results (pdf document)
Big Trees Park Press Release Number 1 (pdf document)
Big Trees Park Press Release Number 2 (pdf document)
Big Trees Park web page (Proper viewing of this page requires Netscape 4.0 or higher)

Note: reporters interested in speaking with ATSDR about the above-mentioned report may do so by calling John Florence, ATSDR, at (404) 498-0070.


Nov. 7, 2002