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What is Barium?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Barium is a chemical element classified among the alkaline earth metals. It has a number of uses, from fireworks to medicine, usually in the form of compounds such as barium sulfate. Many of these forms of toxic, leading workers who interact with it to use extreme care when they handle this element. Consumers are probably most familiar with the form used in liquid suspensions for x-ray diagnostics.

In nature, barium is not found in a pure state because it interacts readily with air. When isolated, the element takes the form of a soft silvery white metal, although it will quickly oxidize when exposed to air. In the Earth's crust, it is about the 18th element in order of abundance, and it is found in a number of naturally occurring compounds. On the periodic table of elements, barium is identified with the symbol Ba, and it has an atomic number of 56.

The existence of this reactive metal was known for at least a century before Sir Humphrey Davy succeeded in isolating it in 1808. The name of the element is derived from the Greek word for “heavy,” a reference to the element's high specific gravity. After Davy's discovery, a number of uses for barium were explored, and several companies specialize in the mining and processing of it and natural compounds of the element. Barium sulfate and carbonate are two common compounds.

In fireworks, barium nitrate is used to turn the explosives green. Compounds of the element are also used in electrodes, pigments, batteries, semiconductors, and glass making. In the oil industry, it is used as a weight in wells, and barium carbonate is sometimes used as rodent poison. In the hospital environment, patients drink it for x-ray imaging because it is opaque to x-rays, allowing doctors to see the condition of the esophagus, stomach, and intestinal tract.

Barium poisoning can cause muscle weakness, kidney damage, and nervous system problems. Fortunately, the metal does not bioaccumulate, so once the symptoms of poisoning are recognized, the condition can be treated and the metal will work its way out of the victim's body. People are at risk through both inhalation and ingestion, and it is typically found in industrial environments where workers handle high volumes of barium. This element can also poison water supplies, although routine testing of a water supply should catch this, along with other forms of contamination.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By OeKc05 — On Apr 28, 2012

I would never have guessed that barium would have such a wide array of uses. Who knew that the same element we drink in a hospital could light the sky green on the 4th of July?

Green fireworks have always been my favorite, but I never knew how fireworks got their colors. Since barium is responsible for the color green, I suppose other elements are used to make the other colors.

Several fireworks combine many colors into one tube, and they all come shooting out in single file. This tells me that barium must interact well with the other elements used, since they all do their job and retain their colors.

By StarJo — On Apr 28, 2012

My dad had to have a barium enema to test for diverticula. The doctor shot barium up his rectum so that he could examine his colon, and my dad told me it was the most unpleasant feeling he has ever experienced.

He said it felt really weird and unnatural to have a tube in there, not to mention the liquid barium. It caused him to have severe cramps and feel like he had trapped gas.

After the procedure was over, he had to go to the bathroom to let the barium flow out, and he continued to have cramps for awhile afterward. He was diagnosed with diverticulitis, and I'm sure that this condition made the barium enema even more uncomfortable.

By seag47 — On Apr 28, 2012

@Oceana – They try to mask the unpleasantness of the barium by flavoring it, but they didn't fool me. I knew it tasted horrible!

I had to have x-rays on my stomach when I was six years old, and when they handed me the barium, they told me it would taste like a chocolate milkshake. While it was thick like a shake, it only had a slight chocolate flavor, and the texture of it made me gag.

It was as if chalk had been partially melted and poured into this glass. It left a horrible feeling on my tongue, and I cried while drinking it. It really felt like punishment!

By Oceana — On Apr 27, 2012

I had to drink barium before having a CT scan. I had been having severe abdominal pain, and my doctor thought I might have some sort of intestinal obstruction.

I had to drink the barium, which had been flavored to taste like a fruity milkshake, several times, starting with an hour and a half before the scan. Then, I drank more an hour before and the final cup thirty minutes before.

The doctor didn't find anything wrong with my intestines, but the scan did show that I had multiple cysts on my kidneys. I bet if they had known this, they wouldn't have made me drink barium, since it can cause kidney damage!

By anon69917 — On Mar 10, 2010

Barium Sulfide is poisonous. It is used in Magic Shaving Cream as a depilatory. Is this safe for people?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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