Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.


Selenium is a mineral found in most rocks and soil across the globe. It can be extracted and processed from rock for commercial and manufacturing uses. About half of the processed selenium in the world is used in glass production. Another large portion of processed selenium is used in electronics, such as batteries, solar cells, and photoconductors, and the production of rubber, plastics, paints, and inks.

Selenium can be released into the environment via the manufacturing or disposal process, thereby entering water and topsoil. People can then become exposed by drinking selenium-contaminated water or eating contaminated agricultural products. Selenium also bioaccumulates in fish, meaning people may be exposed to harmful levels of selenium even if they do not live near a manufacturing or disposal site. Short-term oral exposure to high levels of selenium can cause nausea and vomiting. Long-term oral exposure can cause a disease called selenosis, which can include gastrointestinal dysfunction, neurological dysfunction, hair loss, and sloughing off nails. In extreme cases, selenosis can even cause cirrhosis and death. Selenium dust can also be released into the air when burning oil or coal. This can cause coughing, bronchitis, and irritation of the respiratory tract, which can make it difficult to breathe.

While trace amounts of selenium are required to maintain human health, short- or long-term exposure to high amounts of selenium are dangerous. There are many examples from around the world of people, fish, and birds being poisoned by selenium. With its diverse array of commercial and manufacturing uses, it is crucial that protections be put in place to ensure that people are not exposed to it.

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