Polonium-210 (Smokers and spies)

Polonium-210 is a radioisotope that's gotten lots and lots of press in the last few weeks because of its purported role in the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

Polonium is an alpha emitter - that is, in the process of decay, it gives off energetic helium nuclei. They're massive, so they are stopped by a small amount of shielding (paper is the thing everyone cites as blocking it). Outside your body, it is not nearly as dangerous, since even your skin will stop it. Inside your body, their short range is your loss - the dose from an alpha emitter will be concentrated near the emitter, allowing its lively emanations to wreak havoc in a relatively small area. Because of the short range of the alpha particle, larger particles of Po will get very hot (absorbing substantial amounts of energy from their own decay).

Back in the 90's, then-surgeon-general C. Everett Koop suggested that a substantial amount of lung cancers in smokers were due to alpha exposure from isotopes such as Po-210 (which makes its way into the tobacco plant via certain fertilizers).

You also see polonium once in awhile in brushes for LPs. The idea is that air ionized by radioactivity will dissipate any static charge, allowing you to brush the dust off of your old Styx records. The popularity of old Styx records having waned in recent years, you don't see many polonium brushes anymore (although I think you can still get them). As far as I know, things like these, which are piezoelectric (pretty much a tiny grill igniter), are more popular these days. We had one of the latter, non-radioactive antistatic guns in a lab I worked in once (the usefulness here was for weighing out small amounts of powders, where static is often a nightmare).

Check here for more information on Po. Also, Derek Lowe covered it a couple days ago. See also this post.

More like this

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…
[This is Part II of our explanation of some of the science behind the Polonium-210 poisoning case of Alexander Litvinenko. Part I. is here.] In Part I. we sketched the physical background to understand radioisotopes like Polonium-210, the agent in the Litvinenko poisoning, but have yet to explain…
As widely reported, Polonium 210 was used to murder former russian spy Litvinenko A pure alpha emitter, Po-210 is a curiously elegant and vicious assassination method. It has to be handled with extreme care, but as a pure alpha emitter with short half-life (138 days) it can easily be shielded, and…
It's bigger news in the UK than elsewhere but it's still big news. Apparently Russian dissident and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned with Polonium 210. Time for some science. Polonium 210 is a radioisotope, meaning it is an isotope of the element Polonium that is…

What's a bit alarming is the number of places trace contamination has been found. First of all, there doesn't seem to be much official confirmation of what kind of radiation was found. If it is Po, then whoever transported the stuff didn't have it contained very well. If that's the case, there might be more sicknesses soon.

Effect Measure also has a couple of nice posts about the poisoning. The first is a backgrounder on radioactive decay, skippable if you are already familiar with the subject. The second is a much more interesting read because it describes the interaction of the isotope with an organism.

The polonium LP brushes is a trip, I had no idea.

The real use of a zerostat gun is to shock undergrads and new grad students.

So if a piece of paper or your skin can block the radiation, how did so many planes and locations become contaminated? I thought the contaimination was from the guy who got poisioned, not the person who transported it. Is this not the case?

Any Polonium anti-static devices as old as a Styx record will long since have decayed into inert 206Pb.

And the radiation from Po in cigarettes is miniscule compared to other natural forms of radiation.


Polonium-210, which emits alpha particles, is a natural contaminant of tobacco. For an individual smoking two packages of cigarettes a day, the radiation dose to bronchial epithelium from Po210 inhaled in cigarette smoke probably is at least seven times that from background sources, and in localized areas may be up to 1000 rem or more in 25 years. Radiation from this source may, therefore, be significant in the genesis of bronchial cancer in smokers.


And what did the cadaver used for that study die from?

Heart disease.

As it turns out, the Po levels reported in that paper were 2-3 times that quoted in the lousy op-ed piece. And this additional example of lousy science reporting only bolsters my main point:

If there is a scientific case against smoking (which there is), that case should be used. It is bad for science when a scientifically defendable position is argued using faulty figures and nuclear fearmongering, instead of the scientifically valid arguement that is available.

On one of the recent reports on the poisoning it was said that Russia exports about 8 grams of Polonium to the USA every year for "anti static brushes". Thank you for clearing up what sort of brushes. The same report said that from the isotopic impurities in the Polonium its source could be determined. Strange then that the source has not been published? There was also an oddity in the reporting by the BBC in the UK of the UK police team going to Moscow inasmuch as the faces of the "police" officers leaving the UK were pixelled out. Strange!