Naturally occurring strontium is nonradioactive and nontoxic at levels normally found in the environment, but 90Sr is a radiation hazard. 90Sr undergoes β− decay with a half-life of 28.79 years and a decay energy of 0.546 MeV distributed to an electron, an anti-neutrino, and the yttrium isotope 90Y, which in turn undergoes β− decay with half-life of 64 hours and decay energy 2.28 MeV distributed to an electron, an anti-neutrino, and 90Zr (zirconium), which is stable. Note that 90Sr/Y is almost a pure beta particle source; the gamma photon emission from the decay of 90Y is so infrequent that it can normally be ignored.
90Sr is a product of nuclear fission. It is present in significant amount in spent nuclear fuel and in radioactive waste from nuclear reactors and in nuclear fallout from nuclear tests. For thermal neutron fission as in today's nuclear power plants, the fission product yield from U-235 is 5.7%, from U-233 6.6%, but from Pu-239 only 2.0%.
Strontium-90 is a "bone seeker" that exhibits biochemical behavior similar to calcium, the next lighter group 2 element. After entering the organism, most often by ingestion with contaminated food or water, about 70–80% of the dose gets excreted. Virtually all remaining strontium-90 is deposited in bones and bone marrow, with the remaining 1% remaining in blood and soft tissues. Its presence in bones can cause bone cancer, cancer of nearby tissues, and leukemia. Exposure to 90Sr can be tested by a bioassay, most commonly by urinalysis.
The biological half-life of strontium-90 in humans has variously been reported as from 14 to 600 days, 1000 days, 18 years, 30 years and, at an upper limit, 49 years. The wide ranging published biological half life figures are explained by strontium's complex metabolism within the body. However, by averaging all excretion paths, the overall biological half life is estimated to be about 18 years.