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National study explores the reaction and transport of tungsten in drinking water

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- A Kansas State University scientist is digging deep to solidify information about potential tungsten contamination in the nation's groundwater and aquifers.

Tungsten is a naturally occurring metallic element that in its alloy or solid form is primarily used for incandescent lightbulb filaments and X-ray tubes.

In an effort to limit toxins in the environment, tungsten is replacing lead in fishing weights and in ammunition for hunting and recreational shooting. The military is substituting tungsten in its high kinetic energy penetrators and small arms ammunition, as well as other ammunitions.

"Tungsten originally was thought to be nontoxic, as it was believed to be an inert metal of low environmental mobility," said Saugata Datta, assistant professor of geology at K-State. "But tungsten is a contaminant in groundwater and a growing concern."

Scientists and health officials began connecting tungsten to clusters of childhood leukemia cases in the Western U.S. after finding high concentrations of the element in residents' bodies. People examined lived in towns near tungsten-bearing ore deposits and even hard metal processing plants. Drinking water in these areas has an elevated concentration of tungsten.

"Animal model studies have shown tungsten can be toxic and even carcinogenic," Datta said. "Because of this, we need to understand tungsten's biogeochemistry in the environment, about which very little is known."

To find out how tungsten reacts and relates to groundwater and the surrounding environment -- referred to as biogeochemistry -- Datta recently began collaborating with Karen Johannesson, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University.

Their research is being funded by a three-year grant issued by the Hydrology Division of the National Science Foundation in fall 2010.

The project investigates the biogeochemistry of tungsten reaction and transport in

Contact: Saugata Datta
Kansas State University

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