Effect Measure

More on the Polonium-210 poisoning

We mostly like being right, but we sometimes wish we weren’t. A few days ago we concluded a post) on some scientific background about Polonium-210 by saying this assassination could also become a public health problem. That now seems to be the case, as a trail of radiation is being found in the victim’s wake. UK authorities are scrambling to track down anyone who might be exposed and establish where the contamination is.

Several British Airways planes on the Moscow – London route have been impounded after it was reported traces of radiation had been found aboard. The UK authorities are trying to track down the passengers of the planes to assess whether any exposure occurred while aboard. A hotel in a rural area has been cordoned off (allegedly because of a connection to the ongoing investigation) and the British Home Secretary said that 12 of 24 sites examined for traces of radiation tested positively. Two individuals who were with the victim just before he became ill were also said to be excreting Po-210 in their urine (CNN).

Meanwhile the autopsy of the Polonium-210 poisoned Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was set for yesterday. The pathologists were expected to wear full radiation protection gear because of the danger of being contaminated with Litvinenko’s blood and tissues which likely still contain dangerous amounts of the strong alpha-emitter (for background see posts here and here). UK Polonium-210 expert Nick Priest estimates that Litvinenko’s dose was probably on the order of a few micrograms, which could have been slipped into his food or drink as a soluble salt (New Scientist). The thirty day course of his illness is typical for acute radiation poisoning where fast growing cells in the gastrointestinal tract and bone marrow are killed leading to lethal complications. The biological half life of Polonium-210 is about 30 days, so a microgram or more would be expected to be in his body at the time of necropsy (New Scientist).

Recovery of Polonium and any other heavy metals from Litvinenko’s body might also enable investigators to tell something about the source of the Polonium:

The team should take samples from the liver, spleen, kidney, lung and other tissues, reduce them to ash, and test them with an alpha spectrometer, says [Dudley Goodhead, former director of the British Medical Research Council’s Radiation and Genome Stability Unit at Harwell in Oxfordshire]. That should reveal what dose of polonium Litvinenko received, and whether it was in particles or soluble.

Combined with tests for beta and gamma emissions, the samples will also reveal what other radioactive elements are present, if any, and that could point to the polonium’s source. If it was diverted from the eight grams Russia sells to the US each year, for use in anti-static devices, the mix of elements should match.

If it was produced by bombarding bismuth with neutrons in a research reactor, some of the bismuth, and its daughter product, thallium, could remain. And if it was isolated from the rogue’s gallery of radiochemicals in nuclear reactor waste it could be accompanied by ruthenium, and even plutonium. (New Scientist)

As we explained in our earlier posts, alpha emitters are not dangerous as long as they remain outside your body. However if you ingest them or breathe them they can wreak havoc. It is unclear to us how the radiation trail is being established because ordinary Geiger counters don’t pick up pure alpha emitters except with special probes directly over the sample. Most likely authorities are vacuuming areas like plane cabins or bathrooms and assaying the collected particles. This would also allow them to determine what kind of radioactive material is producing the radiation.

There is probably not much risk to the general public if the radioactive wake is from Litvinenko’s excretions and sweat as he moved through London after being poisoned and prior to his confinement in the hospital. But the source of the poison and the poisoner still are unknown. Assuring the safety of the environment and verifying that those potentially at risk are not sick will be a major and costly public health exercise for authorities in the UK and possibly elsewhere, since international travel is involved.

Like the anthrax attacks in the US in 2003, episodes like this not only stress the public health system but show how fragile it is. At that time, much of the US public health system ground to a halt as authorities expended untold effort responding to “white powder” calls. It will be of interest to see how well the UK public health system copes with this extraordinary event. It may be a wake-up call that they aren’t ready for other extraordinary events.

Like an influenza pandemic.


  1. #1 M. Randolph Kruger
    December 1, 2006

    News from the front office is that there is a lot of concern now that something like this could be dumped into a water supply. It would dilute it of course but its pretty simple, up the side of a water tower. Dump some quantity into the vent tube or by unbolting the access plates. I have no idea what is lethal or what sickens but most of these access points are only closed with a masterlock. Giving rise to a lot of thought and now a proposal is going into the new congress to regulate ALL potentially lethal radioactives. No more “its okay, you would have to swallow it stuff”. I almost long for open warfare. At least we get to shoot back because we can see our enemies.

  2. #2 revere
    December 1, 2006

    Randy: Not a very good way to commit terror. In order to have enough to overcome dilution you would have to have un unrealistically large and dangerous amount.

  3. #3 Pascal Leduc
    December 1, 2006

    The amount that killed Alexander Litvinenko is estimated to have costed as much as half a million dollars (if they bought it on the open market). Dropping even a large block of it in your average reservoir would cause at best, homeopathic concentrations.

    Reservoirs are considered very safe because of the vast amount of water they tend to contain, because of that it takes a huge amount of anything to influence it.

    Plus, the water is treated and I dont see why a gravity filter that gets substances half the weight couldent stop it ther.

  4. #4 revere
    December 1, 2006

    Pascal: You are correct about the quantity required. The treatment issue is a bit more difficult. Many supplies aren’t filtered (even including large cities in the US) and if it were present as a salt a filter wouldn’t stop it anyway. But putting it in a reservoir is a non-starter. You’d need so much it would be ferociously hot and explode when put in the water. You couldn’t get that much easily.

    Whoever got it, it is probably produced in a nuclear reactor by bombarding bismuth with neutrons or a similar method. You don’t buy it on the internet at submicrocurie amounts or crack open sealed static inhibitors.

  5. #5 M. Randolph Kruger
    December 1, 2006

    Hence the comment of Something like it. I dont know whats available out there. Re, water Pascal. Down south its not lake water, its well water pumped straight up the tube to the towers. Pure artesian wells with several thousand feet of sand and naturally occuring charcoal to filter it. They dont even add chlorine or chloramine to it in many places. Mine has none and the pumps pull it into caissons where the sand if any is present is dumped.

    Revere bismuth is readily available, but could they bombard it with some non reactor source to get what you wanted. I have to tell you these guys are going nuts again at DHS/TSA. About one step away from lose the shoes going to the glove and bend over please.

    It was a statement killing as I said. They could have hit him with cyanide or any number of things. They got him in the way they did so we would KNOW who did it.

  6. #6 Roman Werpachowski
    December 2, 2006

    I agree. This was indeed a statement. Cold War’s coming back awfully quick. Only now European countries get to pick sides.

  7. #7 per
    December 2, 2006

    re: time course of illness
    proposed day of poisoning is Nov 1, and death is circa nov 21; that’s a 20 day course. Bearing in mind that the Po gives a cumulative dose, that’s probably quite a supralethal dose.

    re: identifying the source
    yes, sure. If it weren’t for the different bioavailability and pharmacokinetics of contaminating isotopes, you might have a chance.

    Re: statement killing.
    they didn’t identify radioactives till the day before he died, and that probably came about because of a bizarre hypothesis about radioactive thallium. There was considerable speculation that the symptoms were similar to cytostatic drugs. It was by no means certain that the alpha radiation would have been identified; certainly if L had died without diagnosis, I consider it profoundly unlikely that a pathologist would have thought to measure alpha radiation.


  8. #8 huddy
    December 2, 2006

    You’re usually spot on, but I don’t see the parallel with a pandemic. The demand on operational parts of the health sector has been very limited. One ITU is out of action, very few ‘worried well’ are presenting (in fact i don’t know of any) and levels of decon required are less than after a chlorine leak at a swimming pool.

    By all means highlight the public health implications of this story and how it might have been, but London’s got some of the thorough and well validanted contingency plans for good old fashioned crash-bang incidents. We’re not there yet on pandemic flu planning – but rising tide and instand impact emergencies are vastly different.

    Linking the different needs for acute care and long-term chrinic health monitoring for victims of emergencies however, does need work.

  9. #9 revere
    December 2, 2006

    huddy: OK. glad to hear it. We had a differnt experience in the states.

  10. #10 Marissa
    December 2, 2006

    I can’t help but think how much more damage a radioactive bomb would do given the extraordinary trail this incident has left.

  11. #11 Michael
    December 2, 2006

    This development is very frightening for those of us who once worked for the KGB and later defected. It may be that Putin has decided to kill all of us, perhaps in order of the most damage done.

    There was once a good reason for doing this, but I think now he just wants revenge.

    The technical details of this poisoning are of far less interest to me than the fact that Putin has decided to pursue a vendetta.

  12. #12 diana
    December 2, 2006

    I thought I read somewhere in the news that Putin would be stepping down from his position. Is it payback time, while he is still in charge? The Italian gentlemen who met Litvinenko at the sushi bar did have a list, including some Englishmen. The velvet gloves are off, and the iron fist is out in the open for the world to see.The rumor mill is full of conjectures, including suicide, which I regard as ridiculous.

  13. #13 diana
    December 2, 2006

    I read that “rogue elements” in the Russian state are being blamed. As the killers must have had access to the nuclear power plant in Russia where the Polonium -210 used in the poisoning has been traced, someone in the Russian State is responsible. It will be interesting when the contents of Litivenkos last statement will be made public.

  14. #14 bigTom
    December 3, 2006

    Numbers don’t add up. I’ve heard the claim of approx $1M for a fatal dose, alleged to be in the microgram range. Then we import 8grams/year.
    That would mean we are spending several trillion on this specialized import. Clearly one or more of these numbers is grossly wrong.

  15. #15 Lab Lemming
    December 6, 2006

    Bismuth has a tiny cross-section- you’d need a hefty neutron source to get an appreciable ammount of Polonium.

    As for the public health hazard, it is worth remembering that accelerator mass spectrometry can detect absurdly low concentrations of heavy elements, so saying that “Polonium was detected” isn’t particularly informative.

    For a random factoid, the a decay of 210Po is the most energetic in the 238U chain, and has a penetration distance of 24 microns in diamond (so is presumably higher in less dense organics)
    More polonium trivia here:

  16. #16 revere
    December 6, 2006

    Lemming: Many thanks for the useful info. Do you know what the penetration distance is in water? 24 microns in diamond is astounding for an alpha. I’ll check you site for more.

  17. #17 Lab Lemming
    December 7, 2006

    I stand corrected!
    It is actually the 214Po with the highest decay energy- 7.7Mev. 210Po is 5.4; higher than Pu, U, Th, etc, but not the most energetic. Serves me right for trying to remember my PhD without going back to look stuff up.
    I’ll try to find some halo pictures to post next week or sometime.

  18. #18 diana
    December 7, 2006

    I have read that we all have a bit of Polonium-210 in our bodies. Reading the Spiegel this morning. It mentioned that standing near a smoker is riskier than that any bystanders in this case were irridated. I quote from an article. The Ideal Poison: Where Polonium comes from by Manfed Dworschak…”Tiny airborne particles of the radioactive metal commonly settle on tobacco leaves. This explains why cigarettes can contain significant quantities of Polonium. Heavy smokers are exposed to an annual dose of radiation from polonium equal to about 250 lung x-rays.” I see that reproduction of the entire aricle is only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH. Another man in Russia, the security agent, Dmitry Kovtun is also sick with radiation poisoning.

  19. #19 diana
    December 7, 2006

    Dmitry Kovtun fell into a coma after being questioned by the British and Russians. He is in critical condition.

New comments have been disabled.