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Thallium Toxicity and the Role of Prussian Blue in Therapy

Abstract

Thallium salts have been used as medicinal agents, as key ingredients in a variety of manufacturing processes, and as a potent rodenticide. Additionally, environmental concerns are growing, as thallium is a waste product of coal combustion and the manufacturing of cement. Thallium salts are rapidly and nearly completely absorbed by virtually all routes, with gastrointestinal exposure being the most common route to produce toxicity. Thallium enters cells by a unique process governed by its similarity in charge and ionic radius to potassium. Although the exact mechanism of toxicity has not been established, thallium interferes with energy production at essential steps in glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and oxidative phosphorylation. Additional effects include inhibition of sodium-potassium-adenosine triphosphatase and binding to sulfhydryl groups.

The major manifestations of toxicity consist of a rapidly progressive, ascending, extremely painful sensory neuropathy and alopecia. Unlike exposure to most metal salts, gastrointestinal symptoms of thallium toxicity are relatively minor, and constipation is more characteristic than diarrhoea. Many other findings such as an autonomic neuropathy, cranial nerve abnormalities, altered mental status, motor weakness, cardiac, hepatic, and renal effects are described, but are less specific. Thallium also crosses the placenta freely and produces abnormalities in animals as well as fetal demise, overt toxicity and congenital abnormalities in humans.

There are no controlled trials of treatments in thallium-poisoned patients. Thus, the literature is predominated by very small animal studies and case reports with very limited data. Strong evidence speaks against the use of traditional metal chelators such as dimercaprol (British Anti-Lewisite) and penicillamine, and the latter may cause redistribution of thallium into the central nervous system. Likewise, forced potassium diuresis appears harmful. The use of single- or multiple-dose activated charcoal is supported by in vitro binding experiments and some animal data, and charcoal haemoperfusion may be a useful adjunct. Multiple animal studies give evidence for enhanced elimination and improved survival with Prussian blue. Unfortunately, despite the fact that many humans have been treated with Prussian blue, the data presented are insufficient to comment definitively on its efficacy. However, Prussian blue’s safety profile is superior to that of other proposed therapies and it should be considered the drug of choice in acute thallium poisoning.

Public health efforts should focus on greater restrictions on access to, and use of, thallium salts.

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Notes

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Hoffman, R.S. Thallium Toxicity and the Role of Prussian Blue in Therapy. Toxicol Rev 22, 29–40 (2003). https://doi.org/10.2165/00139709-200322010-00004

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Keywords

  • Thallium
  • Activate Charcoal
  • Prussian Blue
  • Maximal Adsorptive Capacity
  • Faecal Elimination