Research Article

Thallium poisoning. Diagnosis may be elusive but alopecia is the clue.

BMJ 1993; 306 doi: (Published 05 June 1993) Cite this as: BMJ 1993;306:1527

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. D Moore,
  2. I House,
  3. A Dixon
  1. Poisons Unit, Guy's Hospital, London.


    Thallium is a heavy metal whose salts are used in some rodent poisons and in the manufacture of optical lenses, semiconductors, scintillation counters, low temperature thermometers, and switching devices, green coloured fireworks, and imitation jewelery, and as chemical catalysts. In clinical practice thallium isotopes are used in cardiac scanning, but the use of thallium salts to treat scalp ringworm was abandoned earlier this century because of their toxicity. The sale of thallium in Britain is strictly licensed because of its toxicity and potential for use in murder, which is helped by the fact that thallous salts are colourless, tasteless, and odorless. The more water soluble salts (such as thallium sulphate, acetate, or carbonate) have higher toxicity, and although the toxic dose is variable most deaths occur after the ingestion of 10-15 mg/kg of soluble salt. Most cases of thallium toxicity occur after oral ingestion but severe toxicity has been reported after inhalation of contaminated dust from pyrite burners, in zinc and lead smelting, and in the manufacture of cadmium, after dermal absorption through protective rubber gloves, and after snorting what was thought to be cocaine. The elimination half time of thallium is between 1.7 and 30 days depending on the time since, and chronicity of, ingestion. The elimination time phases are apparent and because of the long terminal elimination half time thallium may act as a cumulative poison. We present two cases of thallium poisoning with intent to kill.