- Dick’s Sporting Goods lays off 478 PGA golf pros
- Senators: Cease-fire must allow Israel to defend against rockets, tunnels
- Sierra Leone doctor fighting Ebola catches disease
- Iraq welcomes Russian fighter jets, helicopter gunships into ISIL fight
- John McCain laments: Obama’s ‘self-pity … is really kind of sad’
- GOP offer to fix VA gives $10 billion in emergency funds
- Paul Ryan offers to repair U.S. economic safety net with a single grant stream
- Kim Jong-un builds bond with Putin: $250M Russia-backed addition to key port opens
- Pope Francis meets Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman sentenced to death
- Detroit porch shooting trial: Suspect says he didn’t know gun was loaded
What is polonium-210 and how can it kill?
Question of the Day
This week, Yasser Arafat’s widow has called for the late Palestinian leader’s body to be exhumed after scientists in Switzerland found elevated traces of radioactive polonium-210 on clothing he allegedly wore before his death in 2004.
What is polonium and how dangerous can it be?
WHAT IS POLONIUM?
Polonium-210 is one of the world’s rarest elements, discovered in 1898 by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and named in honor of her country of origin, Poland. It occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the Earth’s crust and also is produced artificially in nuclear reactors. In small amounts, it has legitimate industrial uses, mainly in devices to eliminate static electricity.
IS IT DANGEROUS?
Very. If ingested, it is lethal in extremely small doses. Less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of the silver powder is sufficient to kill. A 2007 study by radiation experts from Britain’s Health Protection Agency concluded that once polonium-210 is deposited in the bloodstream, its potent effects are nearly impossible to stop. A poisoning victim would experience multiple organ failure as alpha radiation particles bombard the liver, kidneys and bone marrow from within. The symptoms shown by Litvinenko _ nausea, hair loss, throat swelling and pallor _ are also typical.
WHO CAN GET THEIR HANDS ON IT?
The good news _ not too many people. The element can be a byproduct of the chemical processing of uranium, but usually is made artificially in a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. These nuclear facilities are monitored and tightly regulated under international agreements.
John Croft, a retired British radiation expert who worked on the Litvinenko case, said a dose large enough to kill would likely have to come from a government with either civilian or military nuclear capabilities. That category includes Russia _ producer of the polonium believed to have killed Litvinenko _ and Arafat’s foe, Israel. But it also includes dozens of other nations, including the United States.
WHY WOULD IT BE ATTRACTIVE TO ASSASSINS?
Polonium makes a good weapon. Its large alpha particles of radiation do not penetrate the skin and don’t set off radiation detectors, so it is relatively easy to smuggle across international borders. Polonium can be ingested through a wound or inhaled _ but the surest method would be to have the victim consume it in food or drink. Litvinenko drank tea laced with polonium during a meeting at a luxury London hotel.
WHO HAS IT KILLED?
Polonium poisoning is so rare that it took doctors several weeks to diagnose Litvinenko’s illness and security experts struggled to think of a previous case. More than five years after Litvinenko’s death, no one has been arrested. British prosecutors have named ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi as their chief suspect, but Russia refuses to hand him over.
Some speculate that the Curies’ daughter Irene, who died of leukemia, may have developed the disease after accidentally being exposed to polonium in the laboratory.
TWT Video Picks
The subsidies are a hit with patients who don't exist
- Hamas rejects Kerry's call for cease-fire; Fears grow others could join fight against Israel
- 'We're coming for you, Barack Obama': Top U.S. official discloses threat from ISIL terrorists
- Algerian plane diverted due to storms, second aircraft: 116 missing
- Obama's empty tough-talk: Gun prosecutions plummet on his watch
- House panel OKs resolution to sue president for Obamacare delays
- Conservative groups decry Democrats' 'war on women' tactic
- Obama says public not familiar enough with issues
- Evidence shows Russia firing artillery into Ukraine: Pentagon
- Astronaut shares 'saddest photo' from space: Bombs bursting over Israel, Gaza
- Doctor, 2 others shot at Pennsylvania hospital: reports
Obama's biggest White House 'fails'
Celebrities turned politicians
Athletes turned actors
20 gadgets that changed the world
Fighting in Iraq