Strontium has the atomic symbol Sr and the atomic number 38. It is a soft silver-white or yellowish (when oxidised) metallic element that is even more chemically reactive than its neighbour calcium.
Strontium is a grey, silvery metal that is softer than calcium and even more reactive toward water, with which it reacts on contact to produce strontium hydroxide and hydrogen gas. Finely powdered strontium metal ignites spontaneously in air at room temperature. Most of us will be familiar with strontium because strontium salts are commonly used in fireworks and flares to give a bright (some might say blinding) red color to flames.
Strontium is named after Strontian, a village in Scotland near which the mineral was first discovered in 1790. Strontium is the 15th most abundant element on Earth, but because of its reactivity, strontium is not found roaming freely in the wild: it occurs in minerals, mostly in strontianite and celestite.
Because its nucleus is very nearly the same size as that of calcium, the body mistakenly takes up strontium and incorporates it into bones and tooth enamel in the place of calcium. Surprisingly, this is not a health problem and in fact, it can provide a health benefit. For example, in clinical trials, the drug strontium ranelate was found to aid bone growth, increase bone density, and lessen vertebral, peripheral, and hip fractures in women.
The radioactive isotope, 90Sr, is common in radioactive fallout. Since radioactive fallout doesn’t respect national borders, it falls upon all living things regardless of nationality or species, contaminating water, food and even the air that we all breathe. This isotope is quite dangerous and can cause a variety of leukæmias, bone cancer and other debilitating bone diseases. Perhaps ironically, Strontium-90 is also used to treat cancer.
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