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Osmium – toxicity, side effects, diseases and environmental impacts

Thursday, January 04, 2018 by

Osmium is a lustrous, bluish-white, hard metal that can be brittle at high temperatures. Osmium belongs to the platinum group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, indium, iridium, palladium, and platinum), which are often found together in nature.

British chemist Smithson Tennant discovered osmium in 1803 in the residue left when aqua regia dissolved crude platinum. Its name comes from the Greek term “osme,” which means smell, scent, odor.

Osmium is one of the densest elements in the world. Within the platinum group, osmium has the highest melting point and the lowest vapor pressure. Osmium tetroxide is a highly toxic powerful oxidizing agent with a strong odor.

Osmium is flammable in the form of dust when exposed to heat or flame. It has an atomic symbol of Os.

List of known side effects

Osmium metal itself is probably not harmful to the human organism. However, both osmium and its alloys are oxidized to volatile osmium tetroxide, which is toxic and can be strongly irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. In severe cases, respiratory tract irritation can progress to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Osmium gives off a strong odor. Chemicals with strong odors may cause side effects such as headaches, dizziness, weakness, and nausea.

Moreover, chemical ingestion may cause burning sensation in the esophagus or gastrointestinal tract.

Body systems affected by osmium

Powdered osmium in air forms the pungent, highly toxic osmium tetroxide (OsO4) which can cause lung, skin and eye damage.

Items that can contain osmium

Because of its density, osmium is often alloyed with other precious metals to make products such as instrument pivots, phonograph needles, and electrical contacts. When naturally combined with iridium, it is used in fountain pen tips.

Osmium metal is sometimes added to platinum or indium to make them harder. The osmium-platinum alloy is harder than pure platinum. Some alloys of osmium and platinum are also used to make specialized laboratory equipment.

How to avoid osmium

Occupational exposure to osmium compounds may occur through inhalation of dust, and by dermal contact at workplaces where platinum group metals are mined or processed, or where osmium compounds are produced or used. The following are some protective measures to avoid any contact with osmium:

  • Use this material only in well-ventilated areas. In case of accidental aspiration, leave the area of contamination and go to an open area with fresh air. Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Avoid contact with skin or clothing. Wear a protective suit, chemical-resistant gloves, and safety footwear or safety gumboots. Remove any contaminated clothing item carefully. Rinse the contaminated part of the skin with soap and water.
  • Do not get this material in your eyes. Wear goggles or a face shield. In case of contact, remove contact lenses (if applicable), then rinse with running water for several minutes. Seek medical help at once.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke near this substance. In case of swallowing any amount of osmium, give plenty of water to drink. Refer to medical attention immediately.
  • Refer to label instructions and workplace regulations regarding the proper handling of equipment before applying chemicals.

Where to learn more


Osmium is a hard, gray, toxic metal that belongs to the platinum group metals.

Osmium is one of the densest elements in the world that emits a strong odor.

Osmium metal can be combined with other metals like platinum to make them harder.

The chemical compound osmium tetroxide can actively irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs.

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