What is Selenium?

Found in a wide array of products ranging between electronics and dietary supplements, selenium (Se) is a non metallic chemical element that is naturally-occurring.  As a relatively common element found in rocks and soils, it’s important to recognize this substance and its potentially hazardous and toxic characteristics.  Like most elements on the periodic table, when presented in large amounts, selenium can be very dangerous to both human and environmental health

To keep your organization’s wastes properly managed, your workspace and home safe, it is integral to familiarize yourself with selenium and its exposures. In this blog post, we discuss the basics of the element, where it can be found, the dangers of overexposure and where they can be tested and managed. 

Where Can Selenium Be Found?

As a naturally-occurring mineral, selenium is found widely distributed in nature. Found commonly in rocks and soils, this mineral can be seen combined with silver, lead, nickel and copper minerals as well as sulfide. 

When selenium is in its purest form, it will exist as tiny crystals ranging from metallic gray coloring to being colored black and hexagonally-shaped. Additionally, selenium can exist in powder and crystalline forms which can make it easily respirable which can be very dangerous to human health. 

Selenium in Commercial Manufacturing

Typically, selenium can be found as a by-product of commercially-produced products. These can include:

  • Electronics
  • Plastics
  • Paints
  • Ceramics
  • Optics
  • Glass
  • Rubber
  • Enamels
  • Photo conductors
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Inks 
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Fungicide

Despite being found as naturally-occurring in the environment in a number of other minerals, this element can be alternatively introduced in manufacturing processes such as the burning of coal or oil. It can also be found in commercial wastes. 

Dangers of High Levels of Selenium in the Environment

Because it is created both through natural and unnatural manufacturing processes, what happens when it is present in the environment varies. 

It is important to note that selenium is a necessary nutrient to maintain good health and is needed for the prosperity of environmental health. On a daily basis, humans should be consuming natural levels of selenium in their food and, perhaps, dietary supplements. However, high levels of selenium can be toxic for humans and animals. When amounts of selenium that are 5-10 times higher than what is required for normal functioning, the element can be toxic. In some instances, it can even act as a carcinogenic. 

Environmental Concerns

Especially when coming from hazardous wastes, larger quantities of selenium can infiltrate rocks, soils and other aspects of the environment. This means selenium can essentially be found in:

  • Plants 
  • Air
  • Water

Hazardous and toxic quantities of selenium, when absorbed by living organisms can result in reproductive failures as well as birth defects.

Some of the more common causes of its unnatural environmental presence are:

  • Burning coal
  • Burning oil
  • Industrial waste
  • Agricultural waste

Selenium dust particles from human activity, such as burning coal and oil, will leave a peppered, selenium dust over the land and water. The presence of selenium can also be heightened into the water supply when rocks and soil that are leaking into the earth contain copious amounts. 

Human Health 

As with any hazardous waste, high doses of selenium can result in adverse health effects. When orally, high concentrations can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Respiratory tract irritation
  • Stomach pains
  • Abdominal pains
  • Coughing
  • Bronchial spasms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Selenosis (signs include hair loss, nail brittleness, numbness, other neurological abnormalities).

Your Accredited & Certified Testing Laboratory in Richmond, VA

Regardless of whether you believe there are unnatural and/or toxic levels of selenium in your home or workplace, it’s important to have your environments tested for potentially hazardous wastes. 

As an accredited laboratory specializing in accurate testing results to ensure the safety of the environment, EHS is ready to accurately assess and analyze your environmental and industrial hygiene samples. For any questions regarding proper hazardous waste management and more, contact us today.