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Tungsten was originally considered a metal that remains stable in soil and did not dissolve easily in water. However, it is now a growing concern to U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U. S. Department of Defense because recent research indicates that tungsten may not be as stable as was indicated in earlier studies. Furthermore, varying soil properties such as pH may cause tungsten to dissolve and leach into the underlying aquifer. Currently, little information is available about the fate and transport of tungsten in the environment and its effects on human health. Research about tungsten is ongoing and includes health effects and risks, degradation processes, and an inventory of its use in the defense industry as a substitute for lead-based munitions. This fact sheet provides basic information on tungsten to site managers and other field personnel who may be faced with tungsten contamination at cleanup sites.



What is tungsten?

Tungsten (also known as Wolfram and represented by the letter W in the periodic table) is a naturally occurring element that exists in the form of minerals or other compounds but typically not as a pure metal.

Wolframite and Scheelite are two common minerals that contain tungsten .

Based on its purity, the color of tungsten may range from white for the pure metal to steel-gray for the metal with impurities. It is commercially available in a powdered or solid form .

The melting point of tungsten is the highest among metals and it resists corrosion. It is a good conductor of electricity and acts as a catalyst in chemical reactions.

Tungsten powder is highly flammable and may ignite instantly on contact with air. Tungsten also may cause fire or explosion on contact with oxidants .

DoD has used tungsten as a replacement for lead in bullets and other ammunition since 1999.

Tungsten ore is used primarily to produce tungsten carbide and tungsten alloys, which are used in many general welding and metal-cutting applications, in making drilling equipment for oil wells, and in operations within the aerospace industry. Tungsten metal is also used to produce lamp filaments, X-ray tubes, dyes, and paints for fabrics .

Under the U. S. Army's Green Bullet program, nearly 88 million tungsten bullets were produced; 33 million remain unfired and available for use at training ranges across the country. Currently, the Army Environmental Center is looking at training ranges to evaluate the presence of various chemicals and other potential contaminants, including tungsten .



What are the environmental impacts of tungsten?

Tungsten is a common contaminant at industrial sites that use the metal and at DoD sites involved in the manufacture, storage, and use of tungsten based ammunition. It is also found in detectable amounts in municipal solid waste and landfill leachate because of its use in common household products such as light bulbs.

Tungsten particles may be present in air as a result of mining, weathering of rocks, or industrial applications that involve tungsten. These particles may settle on soil, water, or other surfaces and can be deposited through rain or other forms of precipitation (ATSDR 2005; MA DEP 2006).  Tungsten is considered a “lithophilic” element, based on its strong soil binding capacity and its insolubility in water. Sorption coefficients increaseat lower pH values, indicating lower mobility of tungsten .

Increased acidification and oxygen depletion ofsoils from dissolution of tungsten powder have been shown to trigger changes in the soil microbial community, causing an increase in fungal biomass and a decrease in the bacterial component .

Studies indicate that an elevated pH in soil at a site may increase the solubility of tungsten by decreasing its sorption coefficient, which may cause it to leach more readily into the ground watertable .

Tungsten has been detected at six National Priorities List sites .

In 2006, the assumed stability of tungsten in the environment was questioned when tungsten was detected in ground water and above baseline levels in soil at a small arms range at Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR) where tungsten nylon bullets were being used. The use of these bullets was then suspended.



What are the health effects of tungsten?

Toxicological information on tungsten and its compounds is limited.

Occupational exposure is considered the most common scenario for human exposure to tungsten and its compounds. Inhalation, ingestion, and dermal and eye contact are the possible exposure pathways (ATSDR 2005). Occupational inhalation exposure to tungsten is known to affect the eyes, skin, respiratory system, and blood . Tungsten may cause irritation to eyes, skin and throat; diffuse interstitial pulmonary fibrosis; loss of appetite; nausea; cough; and changes in the blood .

Tungsten was included as part of EPA’s 2008 Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) agenda. Toxicity is currently being assessed (EPA 2010a).

Studies on rats have shown that oral exposure to tungsten caused post-implantation deaths and developmental abnormalities in the musculoskeletal system. Exposure of pregnant rats to sodium tungstate resulted in fetal death (NIEHS 2003).

Tungsten has not been classified for carcinogenic effects by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), or EPA (ATSDR 2005).



Are there any federal and state guidelines and health standards for tungsten?

A federal drinking water standard has not been established for tungsten.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the American Council of Government Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) have established a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 5 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) as the time weighted average (TWA) over a 10-hour work exposure and 10 mg/m3as the 15- minute, short term exposure limit (STEL) for airborne exposure to tungsten .

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends an exposure limit of 5 mg/m3to insoluble compounds of tungsten and a 1 mg/m3limit of exposure to soluble compounds in construction and shipyard industries (ATSDR 2005).

Massachusetts has established action levels of 1 to 2 parts per million (ppm) in soil and 15 ppm in groundwater.



What detection and site characterization methods are available for tungsten?

NIOSH Method 7074 – flame atomic absorption spectroscopy has a detection limit of 0. 1 mg/m3for insoluble forms of tungsten and 0. 05 mg/m3 for soluble forms of tungsten in air .

Other NIOSH methods known to be used for tungsten are Methods 7300 and 7301, involving inductively coupled argon plasma, atomic emission spectroscopy, each with a detection limit of 0. 005 mg/m3. Special sample treatment may be required for some tungsten compounds. 

Tungsten in soil and water can be measured using the ICP-AES, ICP-mass spectrometry, and ultraviolet/visible spectroscopy methods.

Tungsten is not currently included on the list of recoverable metals using SW-846 Method 3051. However, the digestion method has modified to enhance tungsten recovery from soils.



What technologies are being used to treat tungsten?

Treatment technologies to address tungsten contamination in environmental media are currently under development.

According to preliminary studies conducted by various research groups, potential treatment methods involve chemical recovery/soil washing and phytoremediation.

"Ice electrode" is an innovative technology being evaluated for liquid media. This technology is based on the conventional electroplating technique and uses an electrode coated with a thin layer of ice. Tungsten ions adhere to the ice-coated electrode and can be removed by melting the ice .

Electrokinetic soil remediation is an emerging in situ technology for removal of tungsten from lowpermeability soils in the presence of copper and lead. A direct current is applied to contaminated soils using electrodes inserted into the ground.


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